"Queen Boudicca." Morgana said in a tone bordering on worship. "She single-handedly defeated the Romans."
Gwen hummed noncommittally while she worked the comb through Morgana's hair, readying it for the curling rod. Although Queen Boudicca had been her Queen for the first two years of Gwen's life, Gwen knew nothing more about her than Morgana did. Morgana was excited about the visit and to a certain extent, Gwen was too. The Queen was a legend. According to the stories, she single-handedly defeated the Romans, leading her army to battle in a golden chariot. Gwen doubted the Queen's victory was quite so dramatic but she was still looking forward to getting a glimpse of the woman at the upcoming feasts. Gwen's own excitement was tempered by the extra work a visit from another monarch entailed but she was happy to see Morgana showing interest in something for the first time in months.
"You seem very excited to see her." Gwen said.
"I'm not excited!" Said Morgana, who was almost bouncing with excitement.
"Oh, of course. I wouldn't be excited to meet my idol either." Gwen teased.
"She's hardly my idol." Morgana scoffed.
"It's good you're getting more sleep now so you won't be yawning through her speeches."
"No, just Uther's." Morgana said, teasing her back. It had been a few months now since Morgana's nightmares had finally stopped and she had more energy for this type of playful exchange early in the morning.
The whole time Gwen had known Morgana she had suffered from horrible night terrors that disturbed her sleep and often left her exhausted and snippy. Now it was like serving an improved, friendlier Morgana. Gwen had promised herself recently that she would work to overcome the distance that had grown between them in the last few months since she first kissed Arthur. With that in mind, and as a favor to her Mistress and friend, Gwen had carved out free time for Morgana away from the prying eyes of the castle. Few people knew of her newly restful nights so Morgana still had no duties in the morning. Gwen kept the secret from the rest of the staff because Morgana seemed to appreciate the time to herself, even if Gwen still had to her work to do and left Morgana mostly alone.
"Having a woman around who is so powerful and sure of herself would be such a refreshing change from our last visitors." Morgana said. Gwen winced at the reminder of the last delegation of nobles and the trouble Trickler's love spell had wrought. "And at least she's old enough Arthur won't get another stupid crush. Truly, his tournament for Vivian's love was ridiculous. And it seemed like the moment he didn't have to fight any longer he was no longer interested. It figures – Arthur is only interested in the swords anyway." Morgana laughed into the mirror but didn't seem to notice that Gwen wasn't joining in.
"Right, yes." Gwen said, steadying her hands against Morgana's chair. Morgana was not being cruel on purpose, but her words still hurt. "Arthur mooning over Lady Vivian was quite amusing." Her smile was weak and she knew it, but it was the best she could do when recalling that painful time. It was one of the many things Gwen tried not to think about.
"Yes, and just like him to be infatuated one day and embarrassed with himself the next day. She may have been vicious, but I did feel for Vivian when all was said and done. She obviously thought their flirtation was something more."
"I wouldn't know." Gwen said. "She only noticed servants when they were annoying her. Something I tried very hard to avoid."
"I hated having to loan you out like that. How horrible." Morgana said. You 're quite busy when nobles are visiting, aren't you? Perhaps I can spare you from a bit of work this time."
"Nonsense, Morgana." And at this Gwen actually did smile, even if she still felt shaky. "Five Kings or one Queen, it's all the same amount of work, and if I don't do it someone else will have to do more."
"Sometimes, Gwen, you are too selfless." Morgana sat patiently as Gwen wound another curl around the iron, watching the steam rise from her hair.
"Speaking of Queen Boudicca, aren't you from Icenia originally?" Morgana asked.
"Yes, but I moved here so young that all my memories are of Camelot."
"That's a bit sad. Some of my best memories are of growing up elsewhere. Though, I do take it as a good sign that she had subjects like you and your father." Morgana took one of Gwen's hands and offered a moment of comfort. It was a gesture Gwen had offered to Morgana when she was mourning Gorlois' death.
When Morgana's hair was done, curled and pinned in place, it was time to run errands around the castle. Today, Gwen craved to stay in the room and listen to Morgana read, or putter about the room, idly dusting or straightening while they chatted. Instead, she balanced the dishes from Morgana's breakfast as she walked toward the kitchens, stepping aside with a bowed head as nobles passed her in the hall.
She was halfway there, passing by one of the halls that lead out to the courtyard, when she heard a familiar set of footfalls. She moved to the side of the hallway to let them pass and bowed her head even as Arthur said, "Guinevere."
Gwen looked up just as Merlin said, "Good morning." Arthur was in his practice armor, only slightly less brilliant than his tournament armor. Gwen spied a small bent linkage connecting the gorget encircling his neck and the pauldron covering his shield arm. She made a mental note to tell Merlin to take the armor to the castle smith. He would be able to fix it in a few moments this afternoon and it might save Arthur from a rather nasty training accident.
She looked around the hallway to make sure they were alone. "Good morning, Sire.…Arthur." She amended as she nodded her head towards her friend. "And Merlin." It would have been one thing to be found chatting with Merlin but it was untoward to be seen with them both.
"Morgana's already eaten her breakfast?" Merlin said sounding oddly curious. "She's up this early?"
Gwen looked at her tray, empty and obviously ransacked by a ravenous King's Ward. "Um." She said.
"What is it with your interest in Morgana all the time, Merlin?" Arthur said.
"What?" Merlin asked in quick denial. "I'm not 'interested in Morgana all the time' I just care about her well being. Because we're friends."
"It's unseemly." Arthur said.
"Oh, yes, and your feelings for-" Merlin began, but he stopped as he realized that he had been about to go too far. Gwen looked down, suddenly embarrassed and she heard Arthur puff out an exasperated sigh as Merlin began again. "That's not what I meant, I mean, I'm not interested in Morgana in that way."
"Then why are you so curious about her all the time?" Arthur said, choosing to ignore what Merlin had begun to say.
As Merlin began to argue back, Gwen realized this was the perfect time to escape. She curtsied and tried to slip away to the kitchens. Even in their bickering, Merlin and Arthur worked as a team to keep her from walking to the kitchens in peace. Continuing their quarrel, Arthur slipped beside Gwen on her right side and Merlin did the same on her left. Though it made her uncomfortable and nervous that they would be caught, she also felt oddly warm to be surrounded by these two men who each cared for her in his own way.
As much as she enjoyed their companionship, she had to stop them before they all walked into the kitchens together and gave more grist to the rumor mill. Gwen stopped the group. "Thank you for walking with me. Both of you."
Then she made the mistake of meeting Arthur's gaze. In a moment born of madness, she leaned towards him. Arthur leaned down to meet her half way over her tray as if to kiss her. She felt a line of connection drawing them closer, her world narrowing until it was only Arthur and her – until she heard a polite cough from her left and glanced over to Merlin who was looking a little awkward and embarrassed.
"Kitchens." He reminded them and it was enough for both Gwen and Arthur to step away from each other.
"Yes, well," Arthur began, clearly fumbling for a moment as he glanced around the hallway. "I'd better get to the training yard before my men take my absence as an excuse to slack off. Come on, Merlin."
She watched them both walk out of the cool darkness of the hallway until they were obscured by the bright light of the archway that led outdoors. When she was truly alone, she took a deep breath to calm her nerves and strengthen her vow that she would never let her heart be broken and her honor compromised by a nobleman.
She remembered sitting down at dinner with her father the night before she had started working at the castle. He had given her one of her most awkward and embarrassing talks of her life. He talked, in hesitant words, about the world of nobles. He told her how they were not like common people, that they wouldn't hesitate to use a naïve young woman for a short time before abandoning her. The next morning, he didn't mention the talk except to remind her that noblemen and women lived in a world of their own and that in the end the best you could hope to be was a pawn in their world of politics. Chastened, she'd gone to the castle fearing anyone with any noble blood in them.
As time went on she saw that, for the most part, her father was right. Although most nobles were not outright abusive and demeaning to the servants, many used their servants for their own ends in games of court politics, often letting their servants take the repercussions for their own actions. Morgana, thankfully, was not like this. But even Morgana and Gwen would not have been friends if Gwen had been a handmaid to anyone else before she was assigned to a grieving, orphaned noblewoman who was now the King's Ward. Gwen's inexperience combined with Morgana's desperate loneliness and need for comfort allowed them to cross the line between their two stations and each found her life had spaces perfectly filled by the other.
Gwen shook her head to bring herself back to the present. The breakfast tray was heavy in her arms and she did not have enough the time to stand around daydreaming.
The kitchens of Camelot were their own world, as if the heat from the ovens created a wall keeping the rest of the castle out. It was inhabited only by servants – there was no chance of anyone of high rank walking through. Not even the Seneschal came down here, instead sending his man to relay information about menu planning and honored guests. Where Morgana's chambers were a retreat from the world where Gwen could find companionship and friendship and the common areas were a maze of hallways full of potential pitfalls that any servant learned to navigate or wind up in the stocks or worse, the kitchen – for all its heat, odors, and hard work – was the closest place to home for Gwen in the castle.
Gwen placed her tray down near the sink next to Bev, a maid who waited on two lesser noblewomen. "The Lady Morgana's eaten already?" She asked, surprised.
"She woke up early from another nightmare." Gwen said, avoiding having to look Bev in the eye by clearing the dishes on the tray off into the sink and then placing it back on the rack, ready to be filled for lunch. "I think she's already fallen asleep again."
"I wish one of my ladies would sleep half the day away. It'd be better than them pestering me all day with new chores."
"It's not a good thing." Gwen said, biting back a more vitriolic response. "Her nightmares are horrible."
"Right." Bev said, voice laden with disbelief. Gwen wisely decided to remain silent. They worked together to set the lunch trays, Bev working on both of hers, Gwen also sorting Merlin's so that he could spend his day at the training session with Arthur. It was a task Gwen had taken on when he first came to the castle and was absolutely hopeless as a servant. Somehow, even though he was a much better servant now, it had fallen to Gwen to do it every day. She didn't mind so much since it was not much harder to set up an extra tray and Arthur seemed to expect heroic feats of endurance from his manservant.
In the silence between Bev and Gwen, Sally, a baker in the kitchens, walked up between the two of them, draping her strong arms over their shoulders. "Hello, ladies." She said, her smile broad, showing a gap in her front teeth that only made Sally more endearing. "Have you heard the news?"
Gwen shook her head as Bev asked, "what news?"
"How the high and mighty ladies maids fall." She laughed. "I don't know what's wrong when either of you are getting your news from the kitchens. You'd think one of your ladies would share the news with you first and we wouldn't have to hear about a foreign royal visitor from Harold."
"Really?" Gwen said not wanting to spoil Sally's fun by letting on that she heard the news this morning.
Bev, who seemed annoyed at the world this morning, said, "Perfect. I suppose it's another treaty with too many Kings and not enough hands to make the castle run. Even precious little Gwen was lent out last time."
"Oh, no, it's better than that," Sally said. Bev raised a disbelieving eyebrow at Sally but she still waited a beat before letting Gwen or Bev know who the visitor was to be. "It's Queen Bouddica herself."
"Who?" Bev asked, unimpressed.
"She's the Queen of the Iceni." Sally said.
"Where in the name of the Gods is Icenia?"
"It's east of Mercia. It was where I was born." Gwen said. Once when Morgana had been studying geography, Gwen peeked at the book to see if she could find the kingdom where she had been born. She had been surprised to find that Icenia was a small country far to the east. She had also been surprised to find that Camelot, which she had always imagined as a vast kingdom was almost as small. In between them lay Mercia, a much larger kingdom.
"Then you can help us down here in the kitchens with a bit of information?" Sally asked.
"No," Gwen said laughing. "Not really. I was so little when I moved here with my father, I don't really remember the trip across Albion or anything before that."
"Too bad," Sally said, removing her arms from Gwen and Bev's shoulders. "You got my hopes up for some good gossip there. Or at least a hint about what kind of food the Queen would appreciate at the first feast. What good are you anyway?" She asked with a playful lilt.
"None." Bev jumped in. "She'll just run upstairs to her Lady and play at dress up all afternoon."
"Yeah, Bev. The life of a lady's maid is so easy. I'm sure you'd know all about that."
Bev harrumphed, and Gwen felt bolstered by Sally's unasked-for defense. "Now out of here with the both of you. I've got no time to sit and chat. I can't image that either you have the time either. Go!" Sally waved them out with the practiced air of a kitchen matron although she was a year younger than Gwen.
The first time Gwen saw Queen Boudicca, she was near the front of the procession of her court winding through the streets of Camelot to the castle. Queen Boudicca's retinue gave the impression of a multi-jeweled crown with the Queen as the centerpiece, a coveted garnet. The Queen was cloaked in red, a darker red then the bright war-like Pendragon red. It was the red of the darkest wine and though it was dark it was not muted. It shone brighter than the jewel tone greens, blues, and purples of her court and the dark grays, silvers, and blues of her knights.
When the Iceni entered the gates to upper town, Uther led Arthur and Morgana, with Gwen, Merlin and the other members of his household following, down to the courtyard where all official greeting was done. Gwen followed dutifully, but wished she could stay on top of the castle wall to watch the visiting court enter the narrow drawbridge to the castle and then arrange themselves across the courtyard.
Uther greeted the Queen with a bow over her hand that he grasped in his. Arthur followed suit and Morgana curtseyed. The Queen presented Uther with the gift of a fine white stallion for his stables and gave a small speech about how happy she was to be safely at Camelot.
Gwen was quite taken with the Queen. She hadn't been expecting to feel much either way about her, but her grace and bearing seemed more relaxed than King Uther's stern paranoia. She felt this was a good sign.
Two things separated her from the rest of the noblewomen Gwen had encountered. First, she rode her horse astride as Morgana preferred to do, instead of side saddle. It was less demure, but it was much safer and much easier to control a horse when a rider sat astride. The second thing Gwen noticed was, for all the feminine finery of the dress, the Queen wore a sword and scabbard. The hilt glinted in the sun, as fine and golden as the coronet the Queen wore.
As Uther and Bouddica led the way into the Great Hall to begin a long day of courtly ritual, Gwen noticed that the Queen's riding gown was more fully gored than was strictly fashionable. It would mean nothing as she walked around, but when she was riding astride it allowed for more modesty. Gwen noted the ingenuity of design and vowed to work with the castle tailor to create similar dress for Morgana.
The rest of the day was like any other time a foreign court visited. The feast was a party for the nobles first, and then when they went to bed a party for the servants. Morgana had stumbled her way to bed an hour ago, and now Gwen and Merlin where sharing a leftover bottle of mead between them.
"This is good stuff." Merlin said after finishing a swig. "Good." His eyes were half-lidded with intoxication.
"It is good. Now give it here." Gwen grabbed for the bottle, missed it, her fingers knocking into his hand instead. "Oops." Which of course set them both laughing.
When they stilled again, their breathing a little labored, Gwen successfully grabbed the bottle and took a deep drink. She leaned against Merlin, letting her head fall against his shoulder. "This is nice too."
"Yeah." He said, brushing a curl from her face and letting his head rest against hers. "I like you Gwen. You're a good friend." There was a brief flare of jealous grief that was a holdover from her long ago unacknowledged crush, but it burned out quickly. Instead she focused on the friendship between them that meant so much to her. No matter her closeness to Morgana, there would always be a class barrier between them. Her friendship with Merlin, on the other hand, often felt almost easy because it lacked that barrier.
"Merlin, do you like Morgana?" She asked, emboldened by the drink and remembering her walk to the kitchen with Arthur and Merlin a few days before.
"Yeah." He paused. "Of course I do."
"Um, no." She said, her voice slurring slightly. "Do you like like Morgana? Like I like like Arthur."
"So you admit it!" He crowed and reached across her for the bottle of mead.
"That is not what we are discussing right now." She said holding the bottle away, so that he couldn't reach it without getting up.
"Fine, but remind me in the morning to tease you about admitting you like, er, like like, Arthur."
"Deal." She said, lying. Knowing Merlin's tolerance he'd barely remember they had a conversation at all, let alone what it was about.
"No, I do not like like Morgana. She's beautiful, but she's not my type." He huffed. After a moments pause he said, "There was someone else. Recently."
"No one that'd you know. She was, uh, traveling through."
"And you both fell in love right as she had to leave?" She could feel Merlin nodding. "That's actually sweetly romantic, Merlin. Just like in the tales the bards sing at court. I didn't know you had it in you."
Merlin wiped at his face and Gwen pretended not to notice. He took a few deep breaths and when he spoke again his voice was iced over with sarcasm. "It's just as romantic as a maid falling in love with a Prince. Like in all those tales."
Stung, Gwen said, "Oh, Merlin. I'm sorry." She didn't move, she just let him cry silently, resting against her. She put the bottle to the side and waited. Merlin was secretive, perhaps more so than anyone else she knew, and she felt honored that he would share this secret with her.
When Merlin seemed to calm down and started sniffing, Gwen reached into her apron and pulled out a handkerchief, the one embroidered with the Pendragon crest in the corner that she had started carrying around with her in some sort of soppy sentimental fit, and handed it to him.
"Thanks Gwen, but I already have one."
"I've seen you do laundry Merlin, I'm doing us all a favor by lending you this rather than letting you use the one around you neck."
Merlin blew his nose and wiped his eyes and handed back the soaking hankie to her. "Here you go then."
"Why don't I pick that up in the morning." She said.
Merlin shrugged and tucked the used hankie into his pocket before he nestled against Gwen again.
With a small sigh, Merlin asked, "Do you think Queen Boudicca is evil?"
"What?" Gwen asked, surprised by the sudden turn in the conversation.
"It's just that a lot of visitors to Camelot seem to want to kill one of the Pendragons or take over the kingdom or something else."
She was willing to concede that there had been more trouble around Camelot in the last year, but the Queen seemed no better or worse than any other noblewoman she'd ever seen. " I don't think she's evil. Or wants the crown, or is trying to start a war. I'm not sure exactly why she is here, I probably should pay more attention to the politics, but I don't think she's evil."
"Good." Merlin said, sounding far from convinced.
Gwen decided not to push the confusing conversation further. She stared out at the night sky with Merlin cuddled up against her side and a bottle of mostly-finished mead in her hand.
The next morning Gwen was preparing Morgana for an informal - which in the parlance of nobility meant a small but not actually informal - lunch with Uther, Arthur, and the foreign queen. She was arranging Morgana's curls into another hair style, this time using pearl studded pins to hold her hair on top of her head in an elaborate style made of braids and coils of loose hair.
"Merlin and I were wondering last night why Queen Boudicca is visiting." Gwen asked.
"Merlin and you?" Morgana said, teasing Gwen about her old crush. Gwen kept meaning to tell her that they were just friends and that she liked Arthur, but each time she tried she found that she couldn't. It was hard enough admitting it out loud to Merlin last night, and he had already known.
"It wasn't like that." Gwen said, ducking her head a bit to focus on an errant curl that would not stay where it was supposed to.
"Whatever you say, Gwen." Morgana said behind scheming eyes.
"So why is the Queen visiting?" Gwen asked, walking over to the fire to pick up the bronze curling rod, deciding that if the curl didn't do what she wanted right now she'd force it to with heat.
"Well the official reason is that she wants to ensure peace with her neighbors. But that's fairly obviously not the real reason. Camelot's not even close to being a neighbor." Morgana tilted her head to the side while Gwen pinned a braid in place. "If I was her, and had just successfully fought a war against the Romans and secured a larger kingdom because of it, well, I'd want to show how secure my kingdom really was by taking a part of my court and strutting around the countryside."
"Like a knight's victory lap after a joust?" Gwen asked, thinking of Arthur at the last joust, arms raised in victory appreciating the roar of the crowds, his armor shinning. She took up another stubborn curl and began to wind it around the curling rod.
"Yes, like that. Although, less obnoxious than Arthur is at it. Obviously." Morgana replied.
"Obviously," Gwen parroted, her mind still focused on the image of Arthur riding his victory lap with his golden hair glowing in the sun. "Ouch!" Gwen said as the iron burned her.
"Did you burn yourself?" Morgana asked in concern. She turned around as Gwen set the rod down again near the fire. When Gwen came over to the vanity again Morgana grabbed Gwen's hand to look at it. "My hair looks fantastic as it is. Let's not burn your hands to cinders just to impress the Queen. If you use the pearl comb to put up the rest no one will know it's only half finished."
"I think that sounds like an excellent idea." Gwen said shaking her hand to cool it off.
"I have some burn salve around here somewhere. From the last time we tried this." Morgana said, pulling out the drawers at her dresser until she found the small rosewood box. Gwen started to pull away to put the salve on herself. "It's my hair's fault you're burned. Please let me fix it."
Morgana applied the salve with a practiced hand. When she finished she sat there, Gwen's hand in her two, staring at Gwen's hand as if lost in thought. Gwen waited a few moments for Morgana to let go, but when she didn't she said. "Er, my hand? Morgana, my hand."
Whatever had caught Morgana's thoughts drifted away and she let go. "I'm sorry." When she looked up at Gwen, Gwen had the oddest impression that Morgana had just woken from a nightmare. She had the same faraway look, as if she was watching something no one else could see. Morgana absentmindedly rubbed the bracelet on her wrist, the one that was a gift from Morgause. She hadn't taken it off since she received it, and Gwen often worried about what a gift from a known sorcerer might do to her friend. "I don't know what came over me." Morgana said dispelling the tension between them with a laugh. "I guess I can't blame all my little oddities on lack of sleep any longer."
"I don't think you ever really could." Gwen said.
"Gwen!" Morgana laughed again. "You are much too feisty to be a servant. Perhaps that is why you are always a Queen in my dreams."
Gwen thought quickly of Arthur and just as quickly brushed the thought away. "Yes, Queen of Lower Town. And I will rule with benevolent smile and an iron fist." She said, raising her fist in the air and setting her mouth into a grim line.
Morgana's smile faltered for a moment. "Perhaps a bit more than Lower Town." She said, adding. "You do a fair impression of Uther." Morgana soon set out to show Gwen exactly how to perfect her impression of Uther until they were both bent over from fits of giggles.
They managed to calm down in time to put Morgana's hair up with the pearl comb and smooth out their dresses before joining the others in the Great Hall for the lunch.
As they walked in, Gwen behind Morgana by a few paces, Gwen glanced over at Merlin, who was looking a bit green from last night, and Arthur, who caught her glance before his gaze slid over to Morgana. He smirked at Morgana as if to say, "why so late?" Gwen couldn't see Morgana's silent response to her almost-brother, but Gwen was sure it was scathing. If Queen Boudicca had not already been there waiting for them, Gwen was sure that the two of them would already be arguing as Uther fumed silently at the head of the table.
When Morgana sat down, Gwen had a chance to look at the Queen as the royals made small talk. She was dressed in a yellow gown embroidered at the sleeves and the neckline with gold and purple. It made her dark skin glow. Her hair, a similar shade and texture as Gwen's, was piled on top of her head in a mass of twists and knots that Gwen longed to learn how to do. Her coronet, different from the crown she'd worn to the feast last night, was woven into her hair. Gwen briefly wondered if she could manage to do that with one of Morgana's circlets, perhaps the one with the emeralds.
The lunch took a long time, consisting of many courses as well as too much wine if the faintly blushed look of Arthur's cheeks were any indication. It was always the same when foreign courts visited. Gwen couldn't imagine how any important business was done when everyone drank so much they could barely stand by the middle of the day.
Sometime, during the middle of the fruit and cheese course, the Queen said with a familiarity brought on by excessive drink, "Uther, I was hoping, during my stay in Camelot, that I might see if I could find a former servant of mine who immigrated here before the war started."
It was an odd request, Gwen knew, and she watched the barely concealed shock on Uther's face morph into something a bit more relaxed, if cautious. "Of course, if you know her name then we could see if she's working in the castle."
"Oh, I doubt that he's," she put an accent on the last word," working for the castle."
"I see." Uther said, with diplomatic languor.
"My hope is that he's still in Camelot. That is where he said he intended to settle. He was a smith when he left, a very skilled one."
Gwen suddenly felt as if she couldn't breathe. A smith who immigrated from Icenia before the war? There was no way that the person the Queen was talking about was anyone other than her father. Morgana must have figured out as much as well, because her back went rigid. Arthur and Merlin had likewise gone still on the other side of the table. Merlin's gaze kept flicking towards Gwen and she wished she could tell him to stop because she was afraid of drawing any attention to herself.
The Queen, either unaware of or ignoring the sudden change in demeanor of the table, continued. "His name is Tom Leodegrance, and he's the second son of the royal armorer in Icenia."
Gwen, keeping her expression as neutral as possible, focused on her breathing. She dreaded the thought of ever bringing her father up as a topic for conversation around King Uther because she still remembered the ease with which he ordered her father's life forfeit. Yet, part of her wanted the Queen to go on because with her father gone, she ached to know more about him. She hadn't known he knew the Queen of Icenia. Certainly not well enough for her to ask after him.
It was obvious when Uther finally placed the name - his expression closed down, his mouth becoming a thin line. Gwen tamped down on the panic beginning to bubble up in her stomach. Her father died a traitor, she had been accused of practicing witchcraft in the past, and both times Uther had looked exactly like that.
Morgana began to speak and Gwen heard the barely concealed anger in her voice. Morgana had always been an outspoken advocate for people who were innocent bystanders in Uther's war on magic but Gwen did not want the kind of attention Morgana would bring. Arthur, kindly, took the moment in hand, wrestling it away from either Uther's or Morgana's opposed tempers, and said. "I'm sorry Your Majesty, but Tom died last year."
"Died?" For a moment, Gwen was sure she saw anguish flit across the Queen's face, but before she could be sure it smoothed away to the much more proper mask of regal, removed dissapointment. "That is truly horrible. He was a good man." Then she paused, composing herself to speak. "Did he leave any family behind?"
Arthur's gaze flicked up to Gwen for a moment before he answered the Queen. "Tom is survived by one daughter. She, er, works here in the castle."
"Wonderful." She said her eyes lit with something akin to relief, though Gwen could not fathom why. "Is there any way I can contact her?"
"I'm sure she'll be available this evening before our feast tonight."
Uther used the moment of silence that followed to change the subject to something less fraught and the tension eased. Gwen spent the rest of the lunch, a blessedly short period of time, trying to remain invisible. She wanted to draw no attention to herself, but she could see both Arthur and Merlin sneaking peaks at her to see how she was doing. She hoped she looked calmer than she felt.
Gwen left the lunch following Morgana obediently until they were both away from the great hall and in the maze of corridors leading to Morgana's chambers. Morgana slowed down, as she always did, waiting for Gwen to catch up and they spent the rest of the walk back side-by-side. It would seem like any other day in the castle, Morgana giving Gwen the small tasks necessary to finish before that night's feast, except that partway there, on a short private section of a curving staircase, Morgana grabbed Gwen's hand for a moment and gave it a squeeze. Gwen squeezed her hand back to let Morgana know she was alright, and they continued on down the halls.
Gwen was fixing the beaded neckline on Morgana's gown later that afternoon while Morgana read out loud from one of her Frankish romances. Gwen sat by a window in the bright afternoon light relishing the warmth while Morgana lay on her bed, stretched out on her stomach, book propped in one hand. Their moment of familiarity and friendship was interrupted by a knock on the door.
Morgana placed one hand inside the book to mark the place while she sat up and said, "Come in." Arthur walked in followed by Merlin. Gwen stood up and curtseyed while Morgana stayed on the bed.
"Arthur. What a pleasant surprise." Morgana said. The disdain in her voice is more from familiarity than any real feeling.
"Morgana. Gwen." Arthur said in greeting while Merlin said, "hi" from behind him. Gwen nodded to them both before she returned to her beading work.
"Guinevere, actually, it was you who I hoped to talk to." Arthur said. She knew he was here to fulfill his promise to Queen Boudicca but she had hoped there would be some pseudo-sibling bickering with Morgana to distract him.
"I was concerned," Arthur began, looking concerned and awkward. "About the conversation today at lunch."
"You don't have to see the Queen if you don't want to." Merlin said.
"It's all right," she said, although she was feeling a bit shakier than she let on.
She looked over at Morgana who was oddly quiet so far – usually by now she'd have jumped on Arthur and kicked him out of the room. Instead she was looking between Gwen and Arthur, rubbing her bracelet.
Arthur looked like he wanted to walk over to Gwen but he remained by the door instead. "Really, I'm fine. I can go before the feast if you're okay with it Morgana."
"Yes, yes. Of course." Morgana said, absently. "If you need company, help, anything." She added, her focus now exclusively on Gwen. "I can go with you, Gwen."
Being alone with a strange noble, a foreign noble, was always a risk to a servant, especially a maid. Yet, she was uncharacteristically heedless of the risk. Perhaps it was because she trusted the Queen for some unknown reason, but it was more likely that she was so desperate to learn anything of her father's life in Icenia that she felt the risk was worth it.
Arthur walked over to Gwen. Unthinkingly, he cupped her cheek. "You cannot go alone. I would never forgive myself is she took advantage of you in some way." She enjoyed the rough calluses of his hand against her skin moment longer than she should before she finally stepped away.
"I'll be fine on my own." She said, glancing pointedly towards Morgana and Merlin. Arthur followed her gaze and took the reminder that they could not, even here, be open with what was between them. "But thank you for the offer."
He cleared his throat and straightened his back. "I'll send Merlin to the Queen's maid to let her know that you will meet her in her chambers after the feast. And Merlin will escort you and remain by the door. I'll alert the guards that he'll be there." Arthur said.
"Thank you, Sire." She curtseyed.
Arthur strode out the door. Merlin cast one last look towards Gwen and Morgana before he followed behind Arthur. He waved to them both, but his cheerful demeanor seemed forced. Gwen picked up her beadwork but didn't sit down, instead looking out at the courtyard below.
Morgana stepped off her bed and walked over, putting her hand on Gwen's shoulder and said, "Oh, Gwen. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." Gwen said clutching at the beadwork.
"Yes, you do." Morgana said and sighed. The she placed her head on Gwen's shoulder. "I don't know how I missed it."
"You've had other things on your mind recently." Gwen said, obliquely alluding to the distance that had stood between them for months now. "There was no reason for you to know about that. About Arthur."
"His rescue of you makes a bit more sense now." Morgana said sounding as if mysteries of the past months had suddenly been solved.
"He would have gone after anyone, and you know it." Gwen justified.
"I'm not so sure he would have disobeyed Uther and gone into enemy territory for the life of another servant." Morgana said.
Gwen didn't argue, although she remembered when Arthur had been imprisoned for saving Merlin. "Regardless, it can never mean anything." Gwen said.
They stood there by the window for some time before Gwen sat down again to finish the work in time for the feast.
Merlin accompanied her to the door on Arthur's orders she was sure, but also out of his own sense of duty to her. Before they got to the door he said, "I'm sure she's a perfectly lovely Queen, but if, you know, she attacks you – in any way – just call. I'll come."
"I'll be fine." Gwen said trying to reassure herself more than Merlin.
"I know, I know. Just in case. I'm quite good in a fight." He rolled his eyes. "Well, I can help in any case."
"If there's fisticuffs involved, I'll be sure to call for you Merlin. Wouldn't want you to miss all the fun."
She walked up to the door and knocked on the door assuming the properly obedient posture of a servant. She had been expecting a handmaid to open the door but instead the door swung open to reveal the Queen herself, dressed not in her court finery of the evening, but in a more casual day dress in a warm cream color with gold and silver embroidery at the cuffs of the long bell sleeves.
"Ah, yes, Guinevere Leodegrance of the Iceni. Come in." There would have been nothing particularly odd about the way the Queen addressed her if she had been a Lady of the court, but as it was she was a servant and the formal address put her ill at ease.
She stood near the doorway and waited for the Queen to ask her a question, to give her a task even. Unused to the scrutiny, she found her fingers itched to straighten the pillows on the bed or to grab a dusting cloth from her pocket of her apron and wipe the surfaces down. The work would have given her something to do and a way to hide her anxiety.
Instead, the Queen invited her to sit down at the small table near the center of the room. She very nearly stumbled trying to pull the chair out for Queen Boudicca before she sat down herself. She had never done this with anyone but Morgana or Arthur, and those were exceptions, very rare and precious exceptions, to the normal code of conduct.
The Queen began with normal pleasantries. She asked about the weather, about her health. Gwen replied, unsure what she was supposed to say. Was she supposed to ask something in return? The Queen didn't seem inclined to give her time to speak, asking the questions and then giving Gwen barely a chance to reply.
Finally, it seemed, the Queen began talking about Gwen's father, the subject Gwen felt they had been dancing around the entire conversation so far. "I'm sorry to hear Tom is dead. He was important to me."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Gwen said.
"You are his daughter?" She asked. "You look very much like him." Unlike any of the other questions asked so far, this time she waited for an answer.
Gwen, still not able to look up, kept her gaze on the tablecloth. "I am, Your Majesty."
"Were you born here in Camelot?" She asked.
"I was born in Icenia. My mother died and my father moved us both to Camelot. I was very young." Gwen said.
"Oh, Tom." The Queen said under her breath, though loud enough for Gwen to hear clearly. "Did he ever speak to you about your mother?"
"Not often but he said that I reminded him of her." Gwen wondered where this line of questioning was going.
"Guinevere, would you please do me the favor of looking me in the eye?" The Queen asked. "I remember Tom clearly. He was a good man, a very good man. Kind and warm-hearted." She sighed, her gaze focused on an internal landscape. "We grew up together. I under my father's care, him under his father's in the royal armory." Gwen gave her all her attention, thirsty for any new information about her father's life. "We were friends when we were too young for anyone to care. We remained friends when it became unseemly. We didn't care." Queen Boudicca stood up from her chair and started pacing, her nervous energy palpable. "When I was seventeen we became more than friends."
"I don't know why we fell in love. I suppose we were young and it was us against the world. Tom was an armorer's son, his family's wealth came only through their talent and hard work. We loved each other very much, though we denied it for a long time. Our parents were blind, probably willfully so, and we started to play with fire. In a year's time I was pregnant."
The Queen sat down again, her restlessness still vibrating through her. She reached across the table to hold Gwen's hand. Gwen had been keeping her hands folded together so tightly that they had gone bloodless at the knuckles. The Queen stroked Gwen's hand gently for a moment, and then opened her hand palm up waiting for Gwen to take it. Gwen hesitated at first, but slowly relented, opening her hand and clasping the Queen's. "My father was furious. Tom's life was threatened but I would not allow him to be killed. As punishment, Tom was exiled from my life and I was sequestered away from the court. Shortly after our child was born, a daughter who I could not acknowledge, my father tried to marry me off." She let out a bitter laugh. "I was furious and he refused to speak to me. We never had a chance to reconcile. Before I was to be married, he died, leaving me Queen of the Iceini.
"I looked for Tom, trying to call him back to court but I could not find him. Without a husband I was in a precarious situation. Without an acceptable heir and without the acknowledged ability to provide one, I was barely recognized. I knew I had to marry quickly to secure my kingdom.
"I found Tom shortly before the Romans came but by then I was already married – and pregnant again. The first thing I did when he came home was to take him to see our daughter. She took to her father immediately. I think, at the time, I hoped I could keep them in castle as a second family.
"Then the Romans came. Tom was a great armorer, the best in his family, but I decided to be selfish and sent Tom away with our daughter when the Roman's first attacked. A daughter, even a bastard, is only a liability with those damned Romans. They don't respect the rules of war. They proved that to me when they raped and killed my other daughters and, later, killed the King. When the war was finally over, when the Romans were gone, and my kingdom was put together, I knew I had to find Tom and my first daughter, my heir. And now I find that Tom was taken from me as well."
Gwen looked into the Queen's eyes, as brown as hers, and thought of what little her father would tell her about her mother, all the times he wouldn't talk about her mother, and all the comments he had made when she was growing up, calling her his little Princess, commenting on her noble carriage, or her attention to duty.
Overwhelmed she stood up, brushing aside the Queen's hands and refusing to look at her. "I'm sorry. I must go help my Lady Morgana prepare for the feast." She bobbed in a curtsey and then walked out the door leaving her half-empty tea cup rattling in its saucer.
She must have surprised the guards as she walked out of the door because they started, their armor clanking uselessly against the stone wall they had been leaning on. Merlin seemed to wake instantly from where he dozed against the wall. He stood up quickly and took one look at the expression on her face and his own fell. As she hurried away, he dogged behind her. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." She said, proud her voice didn't break.
"Good. That's good." He said as he caught up with her. He looked over at her again. "It's just that you don't really look okay."
"I'm fine, Queen Boudicca was a lovely host. I'm tired and now I want to go home. Please let Morgana know that Alice is to help her at the feast tonight."
"Okay." He said slowing down and letting her outpace him until she was alone walking through the corridors. She managed to find the Seneschal and let him know Alice had to help Morgana that night. Finally, when she passed the guards at the castle gates, she grabbed her skirts with one hand clutched her shawl with the other, and ran the rest of the way to her house.
When she was inside and alone in her dark, cool house with no sound coming from outside she let herself cry. It wasn't the barrage of tears she expected, just a few that leaked from her eyes as she wiped them away. Whatever madness had infected the Queen, or whatever kind of cruel joke this was, she refused to let it get to her. She would return to the castle tomorrow. She would do her work and she would be glad when the Queen left.
Of course, the next morning brought no respite. Instead of working as Morgana slept in after the feast, she found Morgana awake, still in her dressing gown but with a tray of breakfast on her table which was set for two.
"Please, sit down, Gwen." Morgana said as she motioned to the table, and Gwen, who had no energy to put up a fight, sat down. "I know you don't like surprises but it will be easier for everyone if you tell me what happened last night. I had breakfast sent up for us because if I sent you back out there I think Arthur was going to grab you in the halls and force you to confess what happened."
Gwen tried to pour the tea for them both but Morgana got there first, so instead Gwen filled Morgana's plate with her favorite breakfast foods, a small currant pastry and a slice of ham. Morgana began, "Arthur burst in here this morning asking me where you were. Apparently, Merlin told him you had been upset and when you weren't at the feast. Well, we all worried." Gwen nodded though she somehow doubted the conversation had gone exactly the way Morgana was telling it.
"Obviously, to save yourself from being accosted by brutish Princes in the hallways you must tell me what happened between you and Queen Boudicca last night before the feast." She paused to butter her pastry.
"It's nothing. I just overreacted."
"If you were anyone else, Gwen, I might believe that." Morgana said calmly before she took a dainty bite of her breakfast.
Gwen took a sip of tea, holding the cup between her and Morgana as if it were a shield. She said, "Queen Boudicca seems to be under the mistaken impression that I am her long lost first daughter. A bastard conceived out of wedlock between my father and her years ago." Gwen waited for Morgana to laugh at the ridiculous story. If anyone could bring some needed levity and perspective into the situation, it would be Morgana.
Instead she said, strangely, "I always knew you'd end up a Queen."
"What?" Gwen asked. "This is obviously not true. And even if the Queen did have her first child out of wedlock, there's no reason to assume I'm her. She was sent away as an infant." She felt angry, though she could not name why, and she shook with emotion.
Morgana, in the same calm voice she sometimes used to sooth the King when he was in a mood said, "Why don't you tell me the whole story."
So Gwen did, adding at each implausible turn how what the Queen said could not possibly be true. Morgana nodded along in silence, eating her breakfast. When she was done, Gwen sat back, shaking with pent up emotion.
"While her story isn't likely, I don't see why it might not be true." Morgana said.
"You can't seriously believe I might be a bastard Princess." Gwen said.
"I can believe many things." Morgana said with infuriating calm. "Although does she have proof? I have no idea how anyone in her court would believe that a woman she found across Albion was the long lost daughter she never mentioned before. Not now when she's so desperate for an heir."
"She didn't mention anything about proof." Gwen said, feeling oddly deflated at Morgana's logic.
"Well, then look on the bright side, perhaps you're not a Princess at all." Morgana said blithely.
Gwen smirked at Morgana when a knock came at the door. "Oh, god, is that Arthur? What am I going to tell him?" Gwen said.
"That your love needn't be as clandestine as you first thought?" Morgana said, a sly, mocking smile hovering on her lips.
Gwen decided to ignore her Lady and instead opened the door. It was, as she'd suspected, Arthur and Merlin. Again, as last night, Arthur barely acknowledged Morgana and went right to Gwen. He didn't touch her but he hovered around her close enough she could smell his leather jerkin.
"Thank you for barging in and paying no mind to me. It's not like I'm the one who lives here or anything." Morgana said.
"Of course, how are you this morning Morgana? Come out of your lair to sun yourself?" He asked.
"Har, har, Arthur." Morgana said. "If you must know I was consoling Gwen." Arthur's face clouded and Morgana laughed. "You're no fun like this Arthur. You're so serious when love is involved." With that everyone in the room turned to stare at Morgana. "So I'm the only one to admit it out loud, then?"
"Please, Morgana." Gwen said, silently begging Morgana to be pleasant to Arthur just this once.
"Oh, that's no fun. You make me want to be good." She faked a pout and sat down on her bed.
Arthur kept between Gwen and Morgana as he asked. "What happened last night? Merlin's been annoyingly vague about the whole thing." He waved behind him in Merlin's direction and the gestured encompassed a whole conversation about Merlin's general uselessness.
"Hey, I told you what I know. It's not like I could just listen in or anything." Merlin protested.
Gwen began to tell the story of what happened the evening before a few times. Each time she stumbled on her words and her embarrassment caused her to stop the story before it really began. Finally, Morgana took over for her. By the end of Morgana's telling of the story, Arthur looked almost hopeful and Merlin beamed at her.
"Of course, it's not like any of that could possibly be true. And there's no proof." Gwen added, because the hope and joy on her friend's faces seemed so incongruous with her own tumultuous feelings on the subject.
"That would explain why the King called for you two and Gwen to come to the hall before lunch." Merlin said.
"What?" Arthur asked.
"Oh, did I forget to tell you that?" Merlin said, and Gwen could not tell if he really had forgotten or was playing with Arthur's temper.
"Did I forget to tell you that?" Arthur sing-songed back to Merlin. "Yes, Merlin, you forgot to tell me about a summons my father, you know, the King, ordered. If I thought it would do any good I'd throw you in the stocks."
"You still could."
"I've seen you in the stocks. You play with the children. It's not what I'd call a punishment."
"When, exactly, does he expect us?" Morgana interrupted before the bickering could get any worse.
"Probably as soon as you're dressed." Merlin said.
Morgana rolled her eyes and waved the men out of the room. They dressed her for court as quickly as possible and were in front of both Uther and Queen Boudicca without appearing too tardy.
The Queen told the story to everyone present, which, much to Gwen's embarrassment was not only the King, Arthur, Merlin, and Morgana, but also included the few servants and advisors from the Queen's household who attended to her, the King's own manservant, a few of the kitchen staff, and two guards who were stationed on the inside of the doors to the hall. It was as small a gathering as possible at one of these functions, but it was a much larger audience than Gwen would have hoped.
Uther's reaction was hard to read. Gwen imagined his stony features were more from a lack of concern for the situation then any particular desire to school his features to nonchalance. He did, however, ask about proof. "I would hate it if any one of the servants in my household were taking advantage of you."
Gwen watched the Queen bristle, obviously irked by his bland and patronizing tone, but she merely said, "You cannot deny the resemblance," and for the first time Gwen felt all the eyes in the room turn towards her, measuring her and comparing her to the Queen. Gwen felt she did not look like the Queen at all, but she also couldn't help but hear her Father's remarks to her growing up about how she looked exactly like her Mum and wouldn't her Mum had been proud to have such a beautiful little girl. "I also have convincg evidence that will satisfy my council and nobles and that's all that will matter."
"I'm sure Morgana will miss her as a maid, but if she is your daughter and your heir, then she obviously must return with you." Gwen stood there, head down, and listened as they discussed her as if she was a piece of furniture to be moved. It was unsurprising as a servant, but she supposed that her status as an almost Princess, even a bastard one, would have conferred more power on her – if it did, she had no idea how to claim it.
"Leave?" She heard Arthur ask, and she tried not to wince. She hadn't really thought of it either, not in the half a day since she had first heard the story, but Arthur of all people knew he should not be the person to stand up for her. Didn't he? "She can't just leave. She has a life here."
"Arthur." Uther said, silencing any dissent. "You cannot seriously expect her to stay here and be a maid."
Gwen dared to look up and saw rather plainly on the Prince's face that he probably had decided at some point she was staying here. She felt her own heart flutter in response. However, the uncharacteristically open look on Arthur's face fell behind a mask once more and he said, "Surely, Father, we should make sure there is some proof to possibly protect a loyal maid from any danger she might encounter."
"If you are implying that I aim to hurt Gwen." Queen Boudicca said, looking as if she were about to stand.
Uther replied after a fearful glare at Arthur. "I'm sure my son would do no such thing. He is over protective of my ward and those she lays claim to. However, as I'm sure he knows, you are a trustworthy ally of Camelot and we would never claim otherwise."
And with that Gwen saw her future was decided for her. She would go with the Queen to be a Princess to a land she hadn't seen since she was a toddler. She felt a long way away from her friends at that moment, as if a gauzy veil had been placed over her face.
Then she heard Morgana say, "No, she can't leave just yet."
"As I said, my ward is very protective of Gwen. Sometimes disconcertingly so."
The Queen moved to assuage Morgana's fears and said, "My court is not returning to Icenia for another few weeks. However, there is much to prepare Gwen for and I ask that she be given over to my household so that we can begin the education she will need as my heir."
"Of course," Uther allowed, gesturing towards Gwen. Everyone seemed to be waiting for something until Gwen realized that they wanted something from her. Reluctantly, she moved from her place behind Morgana to a spot next to the Queen's advisors.
A few hours later, she found herself standing alone on a tailor's box while the royal tailor and John the tailor from Upper Town were both busy taking measurements and presenting cloth to the Queen for a handful of gowns for Gwen. Gwen took in the scene in the same remote way she had done everything else that day, the layer of disbelief and unreality thick and her mind so full of contrary thoughts that attempting to give voice to them was inconceivable.
The Queen picked fabrics in the deep jewel tones of her court. Gwen could not have cared less as the Queen rejected bolt after bolt of the lighter colored fabrics until she came upon a light and diaphanous fabric in a warm pink. It was just the type of fabric Gwen would have coveted when she had helped Morgana with the same process in the past. She felt the hot flash of grief as she realized she'd never experience something as simple and as fun as a dress fitting with Morgana again.
Gwen held out her hand to stop the bolt from being thrown into the pile of rejected cloth. The Queen pulled her face into another moue of distaste, but Gwen stayed firm and said, "Actually, I think I'd like a dress in that."
Gwen had been expecting to have to defend her choice, but her sudden interest in the proceedings delighted the Queen and her face brightened with a smile as she gave Gwen's shoulder a squeeze. She had touched Gwen before but Gwen had been so distraught recently that she hadn't truly paid attention. This time when the Queen touched her, she felt herself lean into the touch, surprised by the warmth and affection it conveyed.
The rest of the evening went by quickly as they worked out the details of the dresses with the Queen and the tailors. Though both of the tailors knew her and had worked with her on Morgana's gowns, neither had any idea how to react to a noblewoman who knew how to sew a gown, not just embroider a neckline. They kept trying to talk her into fancier more elaborate designs, and Gwen kept trying to talk them down, to more modest cuts and simpler lines that would use less fabric until the Queen held up a hand allowing one of Gwen's simpler designs to pass. Only one was made to the Queen's exact specifications, given to them by her personal maid, and the rest were left to the very expensive tastes of the tailors. Gwen recognized the design to be the same extremely full skirt with many gored panels that the Queen wore when riding her horse.
When both of the tailors and all the assistants had left Gwen, turned to her mother and said, "all those dresses could have been made much more cheaply. They're trying to rob because you're wealthy. You have to bargain."
"You don't understand." A brief sad look flitted across the Queen's face. "Let this be a lesson then. Patronage of a kingdom's merchants is one of the many ways a good Queen keeps her towns and her people healthy. There is prestige in working for a noble, doubly so for the royal family. If you have the money, you might as well line the pockets of those who work for you. You have a duty to them to give what you can. You always must remember that."
"But the kingdom's money must be better spent on other items besides a Princess' dresses." Gwen said.
"Yes, but when you need dresses, as you do now, then you do not skimp on them. There is a difference between patronage and vanity."
"Yes, Your Highness." Gwen said, bowing her head down.
The Queen rushed over to Gwen and held her head in her hands as she lifted it up. "I don't know how I'm going to teach you everything you need to know in order to be a Queen someday Gwen. Not when you are so deferential." And with that she pulled Gwen into a fierce hug.
The next two weeks were spent in a blur. Her dresses were finished and one by one they replaced her older gowns both those she used for daily work and the ones she had once thought of as special occasion only. In an attempt to keep the one dress that meant any thing to her, she tucked the last dress her father had bought for her in the bottom of her trousseau, hidden under a layer of newer dresses.
She was assigned a maid of her own, Nelly, a tall girl, much younger than Gwen. She had light brown skin darkened by the sun and was covered in large dark brown freckles. She wore her dark hair pined up under a white cap, as was the fashion of the Iceni maids, but small bits of fringe would fall out over the course of the day and she was always tucking them behind her ear absentmindedly. Beyond that Gwen knew very little about her. She was silent and went about her duties methodically. Certainly, it didn't help that Gwen was unaccustomed to giving orders and often found herself reaching to open a door before she remember Nelly was there to do it for her. She wondered what her Mother had been thinking, giving a young, and barely trained lady's maid to a young, barely trained Lady. It had the potential to be a disaster, but Gwen was determined to make the most of it and be good to her servant.
She studied for a few hours every morning. She learned about the history of Icenia, about the war, her ancestors, and the politics of the region. She had long been proud of her ability to read but beyond using it occasionally to read stories to Morgana she'd never really had an opportunity to do more. Now that she was getting the chance she quickly found she was glad that the scholarly professions had never been in her reach. She did not have the temperament for it and found that after her few hours of study she longed to be doing anything but sitting still and reading.
In the afternoon the Queen would join her and, occasionally, quiz her, though she seemed to trust the tutor sufficiently not to question his work too much. Otherwise, they would sit and talk mostly about what the Queen thought Gwen would need to know to rule. Often the Queen tried to engage Gwen, asking her questions about her life growing up in Camelot and as a maid but each time she was repulsed by everything Gwen told her. After a few days of awkward conversation they searched for new topics.
They discovered that their shared mourning for Gwen's father was often enough to unite them. They traded stories about him, and their knowledge seemed to overlap well. The Queen knew Tom's favorite food was a sun sweet autumn apple, but he really preferred them roasted with a bit of honey and cream. When Gwen told her a story about Tom almost getting his head knocked in by an angry horse when he was shoeing him, she supplied an equally harrowing story about Tom at his father's forge.
Gwen found it was good to talk about her father with someone who had known him, who had loved him as deeply as she did. She found the hole in her heart where he used to be began to scab over.
Later the Queen began telling stories of her first pregnancy and Gwen marveled to think the story might be about her. The Queen told stories about a sleepy, perfect baby who suckled off of the wet nurses breast but cuddled with her mother at all other times. She heard stories of the child's first steps and of her first word, "Mummy," just as her father had said it had been. All her life she had dreamed of what it would be like to have a mother, to be able to share these stories with someone who had herself lived them. After these conversations her heart would ache with a want so deep she felt that she had never known its true depths until now. She still wasn't sure she believed that the Queen was her mother, but she was beginning to want it to be true in some ways.
In others, she wished that this attention had passed her by. By the end of the first day the whole castle had heard about Gwen's unlikely mother and her new place in the castle's ranks. No matter how much she wanted a mother growing up she never imagined it would come at such a price.
Merlin, of course, acted the same towards her, but he paid so little attention to rank that she wasn't surprised about that. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, the rest of the servants began to be standoffish, withdrawing the support and camaraderie she'd shared with them. Those who hadn't liked her were as distant as those she had considered friends and she found that she was increasingly isolated.
Once, shortly after she had been assigned Nelly but when she was still dressed mostly in dresses that fit in below stairs, she had gone to talk to her old comrades in the kitchens. She had felt so isolated in her new world of nobles; most of who barely acknowledged her existence except to glare at her for her crime of once having been a servant. She thought, perhaps, that people in the kitchens would have been kinder. It was foolish, and even as she had walked down the steps and felt the heat of the kitchens she knew no good would come from her visit, but still she was so lonely that anything was better than what she had at the moment.
"Sally, good to see you." She called out as she walked in, enfolded in the warmth of radiating from the ovens.
Sally looked up from the dough she was kneading on the flour-encrusted counter. When she saw Gwen she dusted off her hands and dropped into a submissive curtsy. Gwen didn't think she'd ever seen Sally like that before. Her domain was the kitchen and no one from upstairs ever came here. "My Lady. What can I do for you."
The effusive dread that had been following Gwen on her walk down to the kitchens hardened into a knot in her stomach. "I came to talk." She said.
"Has there been a problem I should know of?" Sally asked, as if the only reason Gwen would be down in the kitchens was to complain of the quality of the food.
"No, no. Of course not. You make the best bread in the entire kingdom." Gwen said, trying to reassure Sally, hoping for one of her broad, gap-toothed smiles.
"That's kind of you to say, my Lady." Sally bobbed again. Gwen remembered when the Seneschal would sometimes dare to poke his head into the kitchens when preparing the castle for a feast. The servants inside couldn't kick him out because he out-ranked them, but they made it clear to him that he was not truly welcomed by speaking as little as possible. It was chilling to be on the receiving end of that silence. Though Gwen longed to talk to someone, anyone, who she felt she could relate to, she saw that it would never again be anyone she had formally called a friend below stairs. Well, aside from Merlin who never followed any of the rules anyways.
"I just wanted to let you know, that it would be a great kindness if you could," she thought for a moment, trying to come up with a plausible reason to be down in the kitchens, "if you could make sure Nelly isn't pushed around by some of the other ladies' maids. You know how they can be."
Sally quickly looked up at Gwen and seemed saddened and a bit surprised by her request. Just as quickly she bent down again and curtseyed. "Of course, My Lady."
"Thank you, Sally." Gwen said and slowly left the kitchen into the chill of the castle hallways again.
Listening to her Mother's stories about her trials with Gwen's father gave her a new perspective into her relationship with Arthur. Whatever her parents had together had been doomed because of the difference in their stations. Heedless of the dangers, her parents had tried it and had ultimately been torn apart.
When she had been a child growing up in Camelot, her father had worked his hardest to be like two parents to her, providing her safety, comfort, and love. The story she'd been told all her life was that her mother was gone, normally a polite euphemism, and she had filled in the gaps. She assumed her mother had died in childbirth and her father had been so utterly destroyed by the loss he never remarried. In her own childish selfishness she had placed herself at the center of her father's world, and guessed that his protection, love, and desire for her to live a better life than their humble circumstances stemmed from the loss of his wife. He'd guarded her fiercely but while she watched Morgana squirm under Uther's protection, she always felt nurtured by her father's, perhaps because she felt that she could talk to him and know that he would listen.
With Queen Boudicca in her life, she was starting to reexamine her father's decisions, his overprotectiveness, and his choice to never remarry. It made her long to be able to ask him about why he had raised her the way he had. Was he merely doing his duty to his Queen? Did he really love Gwen as a daughter or did he love her with the devotion of a servant to a Princess? In her despair she would try to remember his smiles, the way he would pet her head when she sat down at their small table to do some extra piecework to bring in a bit of side money, or the way he would let her ride on his back as a child pretending to be a knight on a quest.
One night, walking from the Queen's chambers into town – she refused to let go of her house until she had to – she walked to Merlin's chambers instead. After her father's death, Merlin and Gaius had adopted her into their own impromptu family. Theirs was a family of late dinners, small talk, and shared tasks. Merlin would sit next to her complaining about Arthur as they both chopped herbs for Gaius' tinctures. Gaius would occasionally chime in to chastise Merlin or praise what little he seemed to be learning of Physician's craft. He would correct Gwen's technique and make sure she knew which herb was which through extensive quizzing. Merlin always seemed to complain about everything so she had always taken what he said with a grain of salt, but Gaius was a much harsher taskmaster than she would have thought. By teaching both Merlin and Gwen his trade, in his own peculiar way, Gaius showed he cared for her as much as any adopted father she could have had.
When she entered the Physician's chambers she found them empty. She called out and heard a muffled thump coming from Merlin's room before he opened the door, peaking out around the corner. When he saw her, his sheepish nearly guilty smile widened and relaxed into something genuine and Gwen felt her heart overflow with warmth for this man who she had made her brother. "Gwen!" he said, looking surprised. "What are you doing here?"
"Aren't you glad to see me?" She asked with a voice lighter than she felt. For a second, he looked guilty again, and she hurried to reassure him, "I'm sorry if I'm interrupting."
He walked into the larger room and said, "No, no, I'm- I was thinking." They sat down on the bench and Merlin rested his hands in his head. "In truth, I'm a bit stuck."
She had seen Merlin like this once or twice before. She never knew why he seemed to wrestle with such great quandaries that he regularly lost sleep and consequently looked sallow-eyed so often, but then Merlin was a very private person and she always tried to respect his desire for space.
"Do you want to talk about it?" She asked, uncertain if she had the time and patience, but unwilling not to at least make the offer.
Tension that had been hiding in the corners of his mouth disappeared, and she realized that her friend was even more stressed than she'd first thought.
"If you had a friend who had seen something he – or she – wasn't supposed to. Something that could be dangerous, do you think he – or she! – should tell someone?"
"By dangerous do you mean life-threatening?" She asked, guessing Merlin was not speaking hypothetically.
"Potentially. Probably. I don't know. I mean, he- she- he doesn't know for sure."
Merlin held his head in his hands and Gwen took the opportunity to roll her eyes at his pathetic attempts to obfuscate his role in whatever he was talking about.
"So you're saying your friend saw something he or she shouldn't have, that could be dangerous but he or she doesn't really know and he or she's considering telling someone that something dangerous could be going on? Merlin, I think that's too vague for me to follow what's going on. The only thing that could be that dangerous is-" She stopped, because she knew exactly what in Camelot could be so dangerous that even the barest of glimpses was enough to bring danger to everyone involved.
Merlin looked up at her through his fingers, clearly a wreck. She looked behind her to make absolutely sure they were alone and dropped her voice low enough she could be sure no one beyond Merlin would be able to hear. "Are you talking about sorcery?"
Merlin turned a bit green and for one reckless moment she was sure that Merlin was about to confess to the sorcery himself. "Merlin, who? Who did you see doing magic?" She winced – even having this conversation instead of going directly to Arthur or Uther was dangerous. Especially since they had both been accused of sorcery themselves.
She wouldn't have thought it possible, but Merlin turned even more pale and green. He mouthed something that she couldn't hear. "What?" She asked, "I couldn't understand you."
He tried again. "Your mother." He said and, for what felt like the millionth time since Queen Boudicca had come to Camelot, Gwen's world shifted.
"No." She whispered, trying to think of a way she could reconcile the women she knew, the mother she'd longed to have for so long, with someone who could do magic. "What did she do? Did she hurt someone?"
"No. No!" Merlin said, his voice raising enough to carry around the room. He lowered it again. "She was talking into a bowl of water. I think she was scrying or perhaps sending information back and forth. I'm not sure."
Gwen leaned back and took a deep breath, tying to make sense of things when it occurred to her that she'd never seen anyone scrying before. "How do you know what scrying looks like?"
Merlin startled a bit but caught himself and said, "Magic's not illegal in Ealdor." Gwen thought back to the village she had helped Merlin to defend and to his friend Will who had died trying to save them all with his magic.
"Will?" She asked.
Merlin swallowed thickly and nodded. "And others, they travel around the countryside selling potions to ease swollen joints and protect a field from drought. Occasionally, you can pay a good one to build a set of scrying bowls for you to help you communicate with someone, like a family member or sweetheart who's not near you." He said with a faraway look that made Gwen realize how little she knew of Merlin's life outside of Camelot and how different everything must look to someone who did not live here his whole life.
"But these people, they were lying? Peddling fake medicines and such?" She asked. She realized that Uther's ban on magic lacked nuance, but she knew of very little evidence that magic was of use for anything good.
"No, they worked. Not for long, but they worked. I would imagine someone strong enough to work in a court would be better than those who were forced to peddle their wares along the roads by Ealdor." He smiled a thin, tight smile.
"But she shouldn't be-" Gwen stopped herself as a sudden anger overtook her. Her mother had lied to her, had been lying to Gwen from the beginning and been keeping life threatening secrets from her. At the same time, Gwen was filled with an urge to keep her new family safe. "Please," she stood up, but grabbed Merlin's hands in hers, entreating him with everything she had in her soul, "don't tell anyone just yet. Please, she's my mother."
She waited until he nodded and then she fled out of the Gaius' chambers and down to the large hallway that would take her to her mother's rooms. She ran up through the halls and deeper into the heart of the castle before she skidded to a stop around the corner from the Queen's rooms, falling back against the stone wall to catch her breath and smooth out her dress. When she felt she looked sufficiently calm she walked up to the guards at the door and waited until they parted, knocking briefly before entering the rooms.
Her mother sat at her writing desk, papers piled all around her, scribbling away. She sat there for a moment while Gwen collected her thoughts, but before she could say anything the Queen turned around and smiled when she saw Gwen. "I wasn't expecting you right now." She said, though she was obviously delighted, and moved from her desk over to Gwen to embrace her in a warm hug. Gwen breathed in the lilac scented perfume that was slowly beginning to mean "mother" to her and felt herself calming down.
She pulled away from her mother, and glancing over at the two maids in the room said, "Can I talk to you alone?"
The Queen waved the servants away and when the door shut behind her Gwen grabbed her mother by the shoulders. "You have to go. You can't stay here any longer."
"What?" Her mother said, startled and confused.
"Magic," Gwen whispered and the Queen didn't even flinch when the word was spoken.
"What about magic?" She said, leading Gwen over to her small sitting area and dragging her chair closer to her daughter's.
"You've been using it." Gwen said expecting outraged denials, perhaps even accusations in return. Instead, the Queen laughed. It was a low, soft laugh but one of true humor. "This is real. You shouldn't be laughing." Gwen protested.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." The Queen said trying to placate Gwen. "I know that Uther's draconian in his attitudes towards magic, but really how else does he think I did the maternity test?"
"What?" Gwen asked startled because whatever reaction she'd been expecting this was not it.
"The maternity test that proved to my court you're really my daughter. I had my court magician perform a simple spell that proved it to all those gathered at my court."
"You have a court magician?" Gwen said feeling out of her depths again this evening.
"Everyone does. Uther, Bayard, and some of the sycophantic smaller kingdoms surrounding them are probably the only ones who don't have some sort of sanctioned magical user in their court." The Queen led Gwen over to her writing desk. "And as I understand Uther invited King Alined here for his recent peace talks and everyone knows that his Jester is also a very powerful wizard. Probably that man's only saving grace because he certainly is not amusing in the least."
She thought back to the treaty signing and the love spell Arthur had fallen under and wondered exactly what Alined thought he would get out of having his magician put him and Lady Vivian under a love spell. Probably the chaos that ensued, she thought bitterly. "You have a magician here? In Camelot?" Gwen asked.
"Of course not. I value her too much to risk her life like that. She is one of the reasons my people defeated the Romans. You grew up in Camelot and may not realize this, and certainly Uther will never admit it, but having magic as well as military strength can be the key in deciding who is a victor on the battle field. Which is another lesson for you, Gwen - if you are lucky enough to have a powerful sorcerer working for you take full advantage of it." Gwen nodded. She was still confused and feeling torn in more directions that she could count, but she also knew that her mother expected obedience from her as well. "I use a scrying bowl to keep in contact with her as well as all those who are helping to run my court in my absence."
It was so much to take in. First Merlin and now her mother acknowledged a world so much bigger than she'd imagined, one startlingly different than Camelot. She'd always thought of Camelot as cosmopolitan but today, probably for the first time in her life, she realized how backwards, how provincial, Camelot might be compared to the rest of the world.
She thought back to her father's own lackadaisical attitude towards magic. It wasn't something he shared with the neighbors – no one talked about magic openly in Camelot – but he'd never joined a crowd gathered to watch a beheading or laugh at the cruel jokes spread around about sorcerers, either. He didn't fear magic users and usually after a beheading would lament the waste of life. She realized now that his attitude may have come from living in a place where there was no reason to fear magic.
"Please, you can't use magic while you're here, any more." She pleaded. "You can't. It's too dangerous."
"That's ridiculous. There's no way I can stop discussing matters of state with my counselors, there are taxes to be levied and collected this year. There is a drought in the southeast and we have to figure out how to accommodate the drop in tax revenue and grain storage if it continues through the summer."
"The King will kill you if you are caught. He trusts no one who uses magic. No one." Gwen said, knowing she had to try to convince her mother even if it might anger her.
"He will overlook a fellow monarch. He did with Alined."
"I don't think he knew Alined brought a sorcerer with him."
"Of course he did, Uther is not a fool." The Queen insisted.
"Promise me you will not use it unless you know that you are safe." Gwen said trying to banish the image of her father's legs hanging out of the cart as his body was dragged across the inner courtyard.
"I will not promise you any such thing. You are my daughter and my subject." The Queen said, standing up. "I love you Gwen, as only a mother could, but you are still ignorant of the ways of nobility and I can see you do not fully understand this situation." She motioned to the door and Gwen took that as her cue to leave her mother for the rest of the afternoon. The Queen gently kissed her on the forehead to reassure her. "This will all be fine." She said.
Gwen wandered in a half daze back to Merlin's quarters to explain to him what the Queen had told her. He took it all in, looking sick with worry.
"I've lived in Camelot nearly all my life. I've never met a sorcerer who was good, Merlin." She said. "Yet here is my mother saying she relies on one at home to help run the country in her leave. I can barely wrap my head around it."
"Perhaps, magic is not as bad as it seems?" Merlin asked her, looking as if he wanted to take her hand but unwilling to do so.
"My Father was never afraid of it. If Icenia has a court sorcerer, perhaps that is one reason why. Maybe he even knew her."
"Well, Will was a sorcerer and he wasn't all bad."
Merlin looked like he was about to cry and she pulled him into a hug. "No, Will was wonderful. And if he was then maybe this will be okay. As long as Uther doesn't find out. Please, Merlin, please don't tell."
"I won't. I promise Gwen, I won't."
As she walked towards her house she realized at some point in the last few weeks she had started to think of the Queen as her Mother. This was different, though. This erased the doubt in her mind that her change in station was just a whim of a noblewoman that would be forgotten, leaving Gwen to return to the life she had led before. It also meant that somewhere to the east of Camelot was a court and kingdom that she would truly one day rule.
The next day Merlin interrupted her lessons with a note from Arthur. It was an invitation to walk in the royal privy gardens that evening. She told Merlin she would meet Arthur and wanted to walk him to the door but was stopped by her tutor, who cleared his throat to signal she was to continue studying. It was a small thing, but just a few weeks ago she could have walked with Merlin anywhere she chose.
She met Arthur that evening at the door to her mother's chambers. He greeted her with the kind of elaborate civility that was now her due as a princess.
"You don't have to bow." She said, brushing aside his gesture.
"I'd always bow to you." He said.
"No you wouldn't Arthur. Not when I was a servant." She said more sharply than she had intended.
"But now you're the heir to the throne of Icenia." He reminded her.
"So now you court me?" She said her voice like as cold as the early morning valley fog in late autumn. She wrapped her shawl around her tighter.
"No, I tried to court you before. Remember? I think you said something to me about someday finding a real princess." He held out his arm, waiting for her to take it. "I think I've finally have found her."
She turned from him, walking down the stairs to the courtyard and pointedly not taking his arm. When he didn't follow right away she looked over her shoulder and saw him standing there pouting at her. She nodded her head as if to suggest following her and he jogged up beside her though she kept her arms wrapped up in her cloak. They could walk together, but she would not allow him to take her arm as if they were courting. "I'm not a real princess, you know." She said bitterly. "At best I'm a half-common bastard, which in the eyes of the nobility probably makes me better than a fully common peasant, but not by much. Even if the Queen's made me her heir, I don't think I'm exactly what your father had in mind for you."
Arthur allowed her to walk through the entrance to the privy garden first and then followed, catching up to her in a few strides. "The only pre-requisite my father had in mind for me was money. Possibly a standing army as an ally. And if you look at Icenia, they'd have both. That it would be a love match would be a boon." She must have looked wary because he sighed in frustration and continued. "He does actually want me to like my Queen."
They reached a fork in the path they had been walking down. There was a small bower of roses arching over a wooden swing. Morgana loved to sit here on sunny days in the summer when the roses were blooming. Gwen would walk though the fields of wildflowers on both sides of the path, collecting a bouquet to bring to Morgana's room while Morgana worked on a small piece of embroidery or other small piecework. If the weather was unpleasant and the knights were out on a patrol, guaranteeing them privacy, they would steal off to the armory first and borrow two practice swords. Those days the gardens would be empty enough they could practice their sword work, a passion of Morgana's, or just run around in ways that were otherwise not allowed them. Gwen always felt safe here, secure, and secluded from the eyes of the court or her fellow servants but near enough to the castle not to fear an attack.
She sat down on the bench of the swing and Arthur sat next to her. It was still early enough in the spring that the rose bush had no blooms yet, just a spray of tiny white buds that would begin to bloom in a week or two if there was enough warmth and no unexpected late frosts. Gwen's toes, when pointed, skimmed the pebble-strewn ground underneath the swing. Arthur planted his feet on the ground, rocking the swing back and forth.
"Would it be a love match?" She asked finally. When Arthur had been under the love spell Merlin had told her only true love's kiss could break it but before the kiss she would not have named what she felt for him love.
Arthur looked affronted and his mouth pulled into another small pout. When he caught her looking at him he dropped the expression, but the hurt didn't leave his face. "Of course we are."
"It's just before the kiss. The last kiss," she said not wanting to mention the spell or the magic. "Did you think it was love?"
"Of course," he said, as if what princes felt for handmaids was always love.
"Of course," she repeated back to him, with no certainty. "I guess that's settled." She took the moment to lean against him, resting her head on his shoulder and moving her hand to cover his. Arthur initially straightened as she rested against him tense from the unexpected intimacy. With each breath he relaxed into the embrace, eventually turning his hand, palm up, into hers and intertwining their fingers.
She wanted to make a point – that perhaps it was too early to decide to marry when their kingdoms were so far apart and they did not even know each other well enough to love each other as she had hoped to love her husband – but she had no idea how to say all that out loud. Not to Arthur. Yet, he was certain in his love for her. Perhaps she was being overly fearful.
Gwen sighed in frustration and confusion. Arthur looked over at her and took the opportunity to gently brush the hair from her face, lightly stroking her forehead with his fingers. It was an unexpectedly tender gesture from him. In that touch there was an aching kindness and a sad uncertainty. Arthur, she realized, did not have many chances to touch anyone out of kindness or love. From the rumors in the castle, he didn't even take the chance to touch others out of desire very often either.
Hesitantly he brushed his fingers again against her check, this time following the curve of her jaw line until he was resting his finger under her chin. He pushed up after a moment and she allowed her head to lift and turn to face him. His expression was soft and questioning, like the first time they had kissed. Then she had been confused and too slow to realize what it meant, taken by surprise by his kiss. This time she leaned towards him and he took the hint, meeting her in the middle.
At first it was soft, no urgent mashing of lips and teeth, just a hesitant touch of the lips allowing them both to get their bearing. Then, as in the tent, the kiss deepened, tongues darting out to slick lips, to touch each other. Their entwined hands let go, so they could rearrange themselves, pulling their bodies closer together. Hand reached down towards hips and up to tangle themselves in hair. Gwen could feel the buttons on Arthur's coat cutting into her chest where it was not protected by her bodice.
Her breathing was ragged, as she gasped for air around the desperate kisses. The desire that they had built up over the last few months of denial and respectful distance overwhelmed her senses and her good sense. Her body became painfully wet in a matter of moments and she realized that she had to stop now or she was not going to stop at all.
Before she could pull back, Arthur did. He was panting and his cheeks were flushed. Gwen tried not to stare at his biteably swollen lips because if she did for long she would try to kiss him again. He stood up and Gwen politely looked elsewhere as he adjusted himself. They had come very close to doing something infinitely stupid.
When she looked back, he offered her his hand to help her up and she took it. She knew as she accepted his help up from the bench this would be the last time she could touch him, possibly for a long time. If they were in love, and despite her unease she knew what she felt for him was deeper than friendship, then they might touch at some point in the future but for now they had to maintain proper distance.
The days continued. She studied more. Morgana, unexpectedly, helped her with her lessons in manner and etiquette. She was a better tutor at it than her Mother – the Queen expected Gwen to instinctively know how to be noble. Morgana held no such illusions and showed Gwen how to move with the comportment of a lady. She was familiar with some lessons from her time spent waiting on Morgana, but doing was very different than observing. She wondered if she would be considered graceful when she was surrounded by people who considered her their future Queen and had never seen her as a servant.
Time not spent learning to be a noblewoman was spent with Arthur in the gardens. If there was sufficient privacy, and there was very little of it once the Queen found out they had their first private moment, they would spend a few moments touching – hands to cheeks, lips to lips. Generally, Merlin and Gwen's maidservant Nelly would tag along. Morgana would often also keep them company. At first Arthur had groaned in complaint, but when Nelly happened to get tripped up by Morgana and Merlin, leaving Arthur and Gwen a few precious moments alone, he stopped. She thought if it continued long enough that Arthur might actually start to appreciate Morgana a little more.
Gwen found, little by little, that she was starting to enjoy her new life. Her mother was not perfect, but seemed to be a good Queen and seemed to sincerely love her. Gwen still had time for Morgana and Merlin, the friends who had stayed with her through the transition. Arthur was becoming increasingly important to her. His love-struck eagerness began to turn into actual affection but she could still see the privileged prat he was underneath. When she looked at him, she still saw the good King he would be one day, but she also now saw the good albeit flawed man he was. At some point she had stopped pushing thoughts of Arthur out of her mind. Now she sometimes found herself staring at her studies in the morning realizing she had no idea what the tutor was discussing any longer because she had been thinking about something Arthur had said yesterday or how much she hoped she would get to kiss him today.
At some point, she stopped thinking about when she would leave. Her mother never brought it up, so she lived in a fantasy land where she could stay in Camelot with her friends forever.
Which is of course, when everything went wrong and all her choices seemed to be taken from her.
It was late morning and she was finishing her studies with her tutor waiting for either Morgana or her Mother to join her when the doors to the room burst open and Merlin scrambled inside followed closely by Arthur. Merlin was out of breath and looked frantic. Arthur was hiding his own nervousness slightly better, but even he looked disturbed.
"Your Highness," she stood up from her chair and curtsied, "Merlin. What's going on?"
"You have to leave Camelot now." He ordered, enunciating each word carefully, trying to remain calm.
"What? Why? What's happened?" Gwen asked, astonished.
Arthur grabbed her hand and led her over to her trousseau. He said, "There's no time for this. Just pack."
Merlin took a satchel from his back and handed it to her while explaining, "A servant from Camelot saw your Mother practicing magic." He looked mad with fright but determined. "She denounced the Queen to the court." Behind her she heard the tutor hiss. Merlin's eyes flicked in his direction before turning back to her. "You have to flee. The whole court has to flee."
She shook her head, not wanting to believe this was happening. Arthur said, "My father has not issued any orders for the capture of anyone in your court." The "yet" was left unspoken, but they knew that it was only a matter of time. Gwen knew the only reason he had not was because Boudicca was a Queen.
Part of her wanted to scream at her mother, because she had known this would happen. Part of her wanted to give herself over to Arthur to protect, because it would have been easier to let him guide her as he so clearly wanted to. She brushed aside both desires recognizing their foolishness. She needed to warn her mother, and she needed to help her people escape Uther's rage. The Queen's rank had granted them time enough to survive if everyone played their part. Gwen was a princess and heir to the throne now. She had a responsibility to help her people safely flee an unfamiliar land.
Turning to her tutor she said, steadying her voice, "Go tell the servants of our court to pack the necessities. We need to head out of the castle in the next hour."
She turned to Arthur who nodded in confirmation. It was only then that she realized she was still holding Arthur's hand. She looked down at it and, realizing this was perhaps the last time she would ever see him, she kissed first his hand then his lips. She put all her desire, longing, and love for him into the kiss so that he would never forget her.
It was Nelly's fearful whimper that broke them apart. As much as she wanted to spend her last hour in Camelot with Arthur, she had a duty to her people to get them out quickly and safely. She dropped his hand reluctantly and took the bag from Merlin's hand. Turning to Nelly, she said, "Pack this with one of my old servant's gowns, the purple one and the tunic and trousers which you'll find near the old servants gowns in the bottom drawer. Pack any and all jewelry that is ancestral or important to the Queen. I don't know what that is so you'll have to do your best. Pack at least two daggers, and anything else that is necessary and will fit in the pack. Also, leave enough time to pack your own things. You need have your essentials on the road too." Nelly nodded, taking the bag and started to pack while Gwen turned back to Merlin and Arthur. She paused a moment trying to think of everything that had to happen in the next hour. "I need to talk to my Mother."
"I'm coming with you," Merlin said.
"I want to come with you." Arthur said. "But I think I can do more for the cause if I try to talk to my Father. Queen Boudicca couldn't be guilty of sorcery, I'm sure of it Gwen. We will work this out and there will be no need to run." With that he left Merlin, Nelly, and her in the room alone.
Merlin let out a strangled laugh when the door shut, but clamped his hand over his mouth when he caught the glare Gwen sent his way.
"Nelly, don't leave until I come back here. Come on, Merlin." Gwen said, and walked out of her chambers striding with a purpose.
It took all her willpower at the moment to walk with lady-like slowness to her mother's chambers. She didn't know how much anyone else in the castle knew of this affair yet, and she wasn't going to give away her panic least it inspire castle guards to question her. Merlin walked a few steps behind her, as befitted a servant. It grated on Gwen's nerves. She'd rather they could run through the halls together or spend this time walking together discussing the details of what they needed to get done next. Instead, out of propriety, he was stuck behind her, mute and useless.
Gwen weighed the value of making a dramatic entrance to underscore the importance of the situation to her Mother, but instead she opted for the slightly less obvious, and certainly less suspect, tactic of knocking on the door. Her Mother's maidservant opened the door, and one look confirmed Gwen's suspicions that the Queen did not know of the accusations against her.
"Mother," Gwen said bowing. From the corner of her eye, she saw Merlin bow as well.
"Gwen what a pleasant surprise. I thought you'd still be with your tutor." Her Mother said mildly.
"I dismissed him a few moments ago. Prince Arthur has brought me some disturbing news."
"Yes?" The Queen asked, still oblivious to the situation.
"A servant has accused you, in front of King Uther, of sorcery." Gwen said as evenly as possible, though she wanted to be ordering everyone in the room to pack and run and flee.
To anyone who had lived in Camelot long enough to see even one "trial" of those accused of sorcery, Gwen's statement would have made the blood run cold. The Queen, who Gwen knew was from a very different world, blinked and didn't seem to take in the importance of the moment. "We must flee." She added to try and convince her Mother of the deathly importance of the matter.
"Flee? My darling, there's no need to flee. I will simply explain to the King that the magic was passive. The item was enchanted in the past, I'm doing no magic here."
"I do not believe that the King thinks like that, You Highness." Merlin interjected since Gwen was dumbstruck by her Mother's attitude.
The Queen looked over to Merlin for a moment before she looked to Gwen again; barely recognizing his presence let alone what he said. Gwen spoke to back him up. "Merlin speaks the truth. Uther is fanatical in his devotion in ridding his kingdom of magic. Even magical items." Gwen looked around the room for support. No one there moved, not even enough to look concerned. "He does not care about anything or anyone as much as he hates magic. He will kill you all and happily start a war, because he will believe you to be the transgressors. Not him."
The Queen grabbed Gwen by the shoulder and pulled her over to the corner. Merlin looked as if he was going to lash out at the Queen but Gwen waved him away.
"You do not come in here and tell me how to rule my court in a foreign land." The Queen said. "I have lived through more battles, courted more kings, and successfully ruled my country for as long as you've been alive. You are only now just learning now about how to command so I will let your insolence go unpunished. Uther would never treat me as anything less than an equal and he would never," she paused for emphasis, "never imprison me nor put me to death." Sighing, she straightened up. "He is not some Roman pig. He has honor and respects me. I know you've grown up living in fear of him but he will be reasonable in this."
Gwen pulled back from her mother slightly, nodding her head in acquiescence. "Yes, of course." She said, realizing her mother would not listen to her like this.
"You're dismissed for the afternoon."
"Thank you, Mother." She said and turned to walk out the door, Merlin following behind her.
When they had rounded the corner, away from the guards and any servants she let out a frustrated moan. "It's like she's not even listening."
"I think its part of being a noble. You can't listen to anyone less important than you." Gwen turned to glare at Merlin. "Tell me it's not true."
"Morgana listened," she began but petered off. "Sometimes."
"Right. And occasionally so does Arthur, which makes them worlds better than most. But maybe still a bit…privileged."
"Okay, so I'm listening."
"To the wrong person." Merlin ran his hand through his hair. "I don't know anything about Queen Boudicca or her court. I'm not even a good source of information about King Uther or this court."
"True." Gwen agreed. She stood in the hallway gazing at the dust motes in the air thinking about who she could ask for advice when it came to her. "Nelly!"
"What?" Merlin said following after her as she walked down the hallway trying to keep herself from breaking into a run.
"Nelly knows my Mother's court, and she at least knows me well enough. I mean, how quickly did you get to know Arthur when you first started serving him?"
"Yeah, okay. I get the point." Merlin said.
The walk to Gwen's new room was quick and she entered her room quietly. Nelly was sitting on the bed in her traveling cloak, a few bags around her. When she saw Gwen come in she sat up quickly trying to look like she had been waiting at attention all this time.
"We're not leaving yet," Gwen said and Nelly nodded. "I don't know how to convince the Queen that there is a clear danger here."
Gwen held out a hand towards one of her chairs and motioned for Nelly to join her at the table in the center of the room. Merlin sat down besides Gwen in another chair. Nelly looked askance at the situation but Gwen tried to put her at her ease by saying, "I need your help. I don't know this court, I don't know the people in it, but I do know Camelot and King Uther. Unless the Queen is innocent of anything even remotely attached to magic we will all suffer the consequences. And all of us here know that's not true." Nelly glanced over at Merlin. "You can trust Merlin. I do. With my life."
"I'm sorry, my Lady, but what help can I give?" Nelly asked.
"I don't know. What do you think would be the best way to convince my mother of anything?"
"Truly, I don't know." Nelly said looking down to the hands folded in her lap.
"Please, Nelly. You know my mother better than I do. I don't really know her at all." Gwen pleaded.
"I wouldn't want to speak out of turn." Nelly said finally.
"You're not helping, Merlin." Gwen said. "You wouldn't be speaking out of turn, you'd be helping me."
"Well," Nelly said, still looking at her hands. "She doesn't like being told what to do. Even by those closest to her. At least not in public."
"Good, that's good. Although I wished I asked about this before I went to her." Gwen said, trying to look encouraging.
"She was devastated, inconsolable, when her daughters were taken by the Romans. It's told around court how when her daughter's corpses were found that she let out a long wail, like that of a whole wake. Her rage and grief is what turned the final tide to push the Romans from our land and from the shores of Albion." Nelly took a breath. "She's fearless in battle. Er. She likes wine from Gaul?"
"Okay." Gwen said as Nelly petered out.
Gwen sat there for a moment trying to decide what to do next. If this were a normal day, she thought, or what passed for normal since the Queen's arrival, she would be with Morgana by now. In fact, Morgana was probably restless and worried for her, especially if she had been in court with Uther and Arthur today.
"I'm going to Morgana's for the rest of the afternoon as was my original plan. Nelly, I want you to keep those bags packed and hidden. I also want you to share my concerns with the other servants in our court. Perhaps they can help prepare things if it's necessary." Nelly curtseyed. "Merlin, go to Arthur. Let him know where I'll be."
"Do you think you'll be okay?" He asked.
"No, but it's better if we're not seen slinking down the halls together any longer." She said.
He looked like he wanted to protest, instead he said, "You're probably right."
Morgana wasn't exactly frantic when Gwen arrived, but she was distraught enough that she wrapped Gwen in a large hug the moment she saw her. Morgana waved her maidservant out of the room so they could be alone. Gwen wasn't sure that was the most inconspicuous move, but she appreciated for the privacy it afforded them.
"We're you in court this morning?" Gwen asked when she finally broke the embrace.
"Yes. And to say Uther is angry would be an understatement. He wouldn't listen to a word I said in the Queen's favor." She looked at Gwen as if she was about to cry.
"My mother says he won't do anything because she's another monarch. That he won't jail her because they are equals." Morgana rolled her eyes in disbelief. "That was my reaction as well, but she won't hear anything about her being in danger. She does have some good evidence though. Trickler is apparently a known and powerful sorcerer in Alined's court."
"What? Really?" Morgana asked, curiosity piqued. "Oh. Like the butterflies." She realized after a moment.
"I forgot about the butterflies. I suppose they were magic too."
Morgana narrowed her gaze at Gwen with suspicion. "You forgot about the butterflies? What else did he do?"
"I didn't say he did anything else."
"No, but I'm pretty sure there was an implication somewhere in there." Morgana inched closer to her friend, trying to intimidate her with a glare. "Gwen, what else did Trickler do?"
Gwen sighed, realizing Morgana would never let her line of questioning go and that it was better to just confess now. It's not like her relationship with Arthur was a secret between them any longer. "Remember how Arthur and Lady Vivian were all over each other suddenly, even though the previous day they couldn't stand each other?"
"Yes. How could I forget, it was hilarious." Morgana said.
Gwen swallowed the painful lump that seemed to form in her throat every time she thought about Arthur during the spell. How certain she had been that he was talking about his feelings for her and how heartbreaking it had been to realize that she was wrong. "Hilarious." She deadpanned "Regardless, Merlin helped me break the spell on Arthur, with a kiss."
"Merlin helped you?" Morgana asked, far beside the point if Gwen had anything to say about it. "Merlin and not, say, Gaius?"
"Yes, Merlin." She said in exasperation and waved that away because it was hardly important. "I kissed Arthur and our love broke the spell." She could feel her cheeks burning in embarrassment.
"Your kiss broke a spell cast on a prince?" Morgana said before she burst out laughing. "Oh Gwen. Your life is one big fairy tale." She kept laughing so hard she was left gasping for air. Eventually she managed to say. "Don't refuse any old woman a kindness or touch any golden geese. Just to be safe."
"If you're finished laughing," she said. Morgana couldn't seem to contain herself and continued to laugh until Gwen's resistance broke and she too began to laugh. They laughed so hard they eventually had to lean against each other.
"Gwen, what are you going to do?" Morgana asked, her laughter subsiding into little hiccups.
"I really don't know. I asked Nelly about my Mother, to see if there was any approach I could take to convince her, but her only good suggestion seemed to imply that I would have to be in danger for her to take this situation seriously. Understandably, I'm not too keen on risking my head at the block to get the rest of the court out of here." She sighed. "I hate this waiting." Gwen said. "I know what needs to happen. We should leave, but I don't want to leave. My home is in Camelot, not Icenia. I would have been happy here, even as a servant in the castle. But now I'm tied to this other court, who are required to respect me because they are my subjects and I am the chosen heir of the kingdom."
Gwen's fear, rage, and frustration became too much and she could feel tears welling up from deep inside of her. She tried to fight them down – once the tears started she knew she would not be able to stop them. She felt she must look mad, laughing one second and then crying the next, but it was as if the release she felt from the laughter undid the tight binding she had tied up all her emotions with and now she couldn't stop them.
Morgana's face contorted in shared grief and surprise before she frantically began searching for a handkerchief in the folds of her gown. When she couldn't find one there she pulled one from her dresser and, guiding Gwen to the bed to sit on its edge, she wrapped one arm around Gwen while Gwen fell apart.
She heard a knock at the door and without waiting for a reply, Arthur and Merlin entered. Gwen used the borrowed hankie to dry her tears, hiccupping back the last of the bits of sadness. Merlin walked over to her, hovering for a moment as if he wasn't sure he could touch her before deciding to give her a hug. Morgana moved aside and over to Arthur. Gwen offered Merlin a watery smile in return when he stood up. Arthur looked confused, torn between being unsure what comfort he could offer and how to offer comfort at all.
Morgana whispered something in his ear and he turned a bit red, which Gwen found endearing. He walked over and, in a failed attempt at casualness, sat down a good few feet from Gwen on the bed as Arthur cleared his throat a few times and said. "My father and your mother are in the great hall talking. Negotiating."
"Truly negotiating?" Morgana asked.
"Yes, Morgana. Negotiating." Arthur said. "He may be a bit forceful about keeping Camelot safe from magic, but he is willing to listen to the Queen."
"You call Uther's behavior a bit forceful?" Morgana asked.
"Magic has only ever proved to be used for hate and evil in my experience." Arthur said sounding sure and righteous.
"Well, if that's the case. We both know that Uther wouldn't send an innocent to death, like Gwen's father, for merely associating with a sorcerer." Morgana said.
"Morgana." Gwen said. Hurt that she would use Gwen's father in order to win an argument. Even Arthur looked a bit horrified.
"It's painful, I know Gwen. But it's true." Morgana said, sure that she had the right to speak about Gwen's father if it was going to help her win the argument.
"Before we left so they could negotiate privately, the Queen has guaranteed that no one else in her court even knew of the magic, that she bears sole responsibility for the trespass. I do think my father will see reason and merely have her and her court leave Camelot as soon as possible." He glanced over to Gwen. For all his annoyance that Morgana was, once again, arguing with him about magic, Gwen could see real sorrow at the thought of Gwen leaving. Caught up in the moment she scooted towards him and grabbed his hand to give it a squeeze. He twined his fingers in hers.
"But what she said was not true." Gwen said, gaining comfort from holding Arthur's hand even though she knew he would not like what she said next. "Her whole court knows about the scrying bowl. Even me."
Arthur looked personally affronted but he held on to her hand. "You? But you know magic is forbidden in Camelot, Gwen. You know how dangerous even the most simple of magic can be."
"She's been using it to communicate with the rest of her court back in Icenia. You must see that it's a quicker way to do it than using curriers."
"She's endangered you, just by letting you know. By using this magic in front of you."
"No, she didn't. No more than the rest of her court. Besides, she didn't tell me at first. I found out from-" she stopped herself from saying Merlin but she couldn't stop herself from glancing towards him, "from someone else."
Morgana, who was always very perceptive when it suited her, must have caught Gwen's glance because she asked, "Merlin? Merlin told you of the Queen's use of magic?"
"What?" Arthur said, looking towards Merlin.
"No, I didn't say. It wasn't-" Gwen began.
"Don't lie for me, Gwen." Merlin said, tilting his chin up. "I was delivering a remedy to the Queen for a headache she had when I saw the scrying bowl.
"Merlin recognized them from when he lived in Ealdor." Gwen broke in.
"I did." Merlin said.
"I know Ealdor is a backwards village, Merlin," Arthur said, "but you can't let its dangerously lax attitude towards magic infect you like that."
"Perhaps his ' attitude is lax' because magic isn't so dangerous." Morgana said, staring at Merlin.
At that moment someone knocked on the door. Although the knock had come at a horrible time, she couldn't help but think that something worse might have happened if it hadn't come.
Gwen moved to go answer the door out of habit, but Morgana waved her away and answered the door herself. "Nelly." Morgana said, surprised. "Come in."
"My lady," Nelly curtseyed, and Gwen remembered the feeling of bending in supplication like that countless times every day. When Nelly looked up again Gwen could see that she was obviously shaken.
"Nelly, what is it." Gwen said, crossing the room to her. "What happened?" Gwen asked, because she knew that Nelly must be bringing some dire news. No one looked that frightened without reason.
"They took the Queen." She said.
"What?" Arthur asked, standing up from the bed. Nelly seemed startled, stepping away from him as if to protect herself.
Gwen moved between Arthur and Nelly. "What happened?" Gwen asked again.
"King Uther, he had the Queen imprisoned. Her life is forfeit for breaking the laws of Camelot and the rest of us are ordered to flee." Nelly peered around Gwen at Arthur, still dressed in a jerkin and chainmail from earlier in the day.
"Are your knights planning on attacking Camelot?" Arthur asked moving towards Nelly again.
She shied away and shook her head. "No, Sire." Gwen could hear the lie masked underneath the polite servility. Gwen could picture the carnage if the knights of Icenia attacked in an attempt to rescue their Queen. Even if they were successful it would mean a great loss of life for people here and in her Mother's court. People in her court, she realized suddenly. Without the Queen, and as the recognized heir, it was up to her to stop this.
Standing up straighter, trying to appear as regal as her Mother did effortlessly she said, "Nelly, bring me to see the Seneschal." She knew her people couldn't attack Camelot without grievous loss of life on both sides. There had to be another way.
"But, My Lady, the Queen." Nelly protested.
"I know. But I will- I will think of something," she said.
As she left she could hear Morgana and Arthur arguing while Merlin stood by curiously silent.
She arrived at the inner sanctum of the Queen's court in Camelot and found the room in chaos. The Seneschal was arguing the head of the knights over how and when they should rescue the Queen. The nobles were so lost in their own drama they could not see the rest of the servants, nervously waiting for an order, any order that might save their own lives and that of their beloved Queen.
"Enough." Gwen said. The room still chattered away – most of its occupants paid no attention to her.
"Enough!" She said again, trying to channel her Mother. This time, everyone in the room turned towards her.
"King Uther is deadly serious about all things magical and sees them as serious crimes. We must flee as he has ordered. If he thinks we are considering an attack, he will order all our deaths. He did it in the time of the purges and he will have no problem doing it again. There were great pyres full of people burning."
When one of the knights began to protest, she held up her hand. "We don't have time to argue. We cannot let our Queen, my Mother, die here nor can we attack and hope to escape. We will never win against the superior numbers of the knights of Camelot, not without unacceptable loss of life. But," she paused because she was uncertain if her friends would help her Mother. "I have previously helped to save other innocents sent to Uther's dungeon escape. For our Queen's life I beg you to trust me. I am your future Queen, and I vow to protect all my people and my sovereign, to whom I own my life."
She felt like her Mother the few times she had seen her address a large crowd, or Arthur encouraging the peasants of Ealdor, or Morgana pleading for the lives of those sent to the block for magic. She didn't know where the words came from, they were mostly bluster and raw bravado, but she hoped they would be believed, and she hoped they would rally her court to her.
She also knew better then to wait for people to accept orders. Instead she took her cue from King Uther and her Mother and began orchestrating the maids and servants to pack the necessities, even the Queen's. While she did this the very beginnings of a plan to rescue her mother began to form. One thing she knew for sure, they only had until nightfall to pack because if they were not far away from Camelot when the Queen was rescued the entire entourage would be hunted down and slaughtered.
The Seneschal looked as if he wanted to argue with her but she knew that she could not afford to brook any counter arguments at the moment. Every moment wasted was one moment more that her people could die. She sent him away with an order to coordinate the packing effort amongst the servants and sent one of the lower-ranked knights to the stables to get the lads to ready their horses.
Nelly was almost out the door before Gwen managed to grab her. "Wait. I need you to deliver a note to Merlin, Prince Arthur's manservant. Can you do that first?"
"Of course, my Lady." Nelly said.
When they were back in Gwen's chambers she took quill to parchment and wrote a note asking for help with plans to rescue her Mother that evening when everyone else was already out of Camelot. She knew Merlin would help, as well as Morgana, but she knew she was asking much of Arthur. As much as she loved him, she still wasn't sure he would act against his Father.
"Nelly, carry this note in your pocket. No one must see it and it cannot be read by anyone other than Merlin." Gwen said. Nelly tucked the note into the pocket of her skirt and curtseyed before she left the room, leaving Gwen alone.
Gwen spent the rest of the day coordinating the mass exodus of the Iceni court.
At the very end of the day, she switched clothes with Nelly who, when dressed in the finery of the court and with her face mostly hidden by a riding cloak, would hopefully fool people in the twilight into thinking she was Gwen. A few members of the court knew enough of her plans – Nelly was to ride in Gwen's place of honor near the front of the group. Gwen, in her servant's clothes, was to hide in Merlin's chambers until it was time to rescue her Mother. If she was successful, they would join up on the other side of Camelot's border to the east.
That evening, Morgana was the first to appear in Gaius' chambers. She heard Morgana asking for a new sleeping draught as she closed the door, and then she heard her former mistress' steps come across the floor and open the door.
"Gwen, I got your message." She gave Gwen a hug. "I don't think that Arthur is going to help. I know he's helped before but I can't imagine he'll go against Uther this time."
"Perhaps then Merlin will bring the keys?"
"We can only hope. Although Arthur is sure to be suspicious of any attempt to get them."
"We must try." Gwen said. There was no other option for her at this point.
"I know. I do have a plan if everything goes for the worse."
They sat on Merlin's narrow bed and waited until they heard two sets of footsteps outside the door and it opened up to reveal Merlin and Arthur.
"Arthur?" Gwen said not quite believing he was here.
He looked hurt but shrugged it aside. "My Father put Queen Boudicca in the north-most cell."
"Only Uther has the keys to that cell," Merlin added.
"What can we do?" Gwen asked.
"Pick the lock." Morgana said, as if any of them knew how. But she was staring intently at Merlin.
"I don't know how to-" Merlin started at the same time Arthur said, "I don't think we'll-"
"Trust me, we'll get the Queen out. I know a way around it." Morgana said interrupting them both.
The four of them silently stalked through the halls, avoiding the guard rotations with Arthur's help. At one point, Morgana distracted an inebriated noble of Uther's court while the rest of them quietly moved past him. The whole time, Gwen kept to the shadows as much as possible – every moment she was in Camelot was a moment she could be caught and jailed.
Arthur used a smoke bomb with some sort of sleeping agent in it against the guards in the dungeon. As they walked by the bodies slumped over in sleep on the floor Gwen kept expecting one of them to grab her ankle. When they reached the cell, through the thick iron bars of the cell she saw her mother stretched out on a cot and trying to sleep.
"Mother." Gwen whispered trying to rouse the Queen quietly.
The Queen stirred and blinking against the light of the torches she asked, "Gwen? Have they imprisoned you too?" She spat on the ground. "Uther is a coward and an oath-breaker. He swore to me you would not be harmed if I surrendered."
"No, he kept his word." Gwen said. "I've come to rescue you."
"Gwen, if I don't stay here, then our people's lives are all forfeit. Your life will be forfeit." She grabbed Gwen's hand through the bars. "I cannot do that."
Gwen returned her grasp. "Everyone else is out of Camelot and riding toward the border. I'm here to rescue you. Our people need their Queen."
The Queen blinked into the light of the torches and looked to Gwen's companions for the first time. "The King's Ward and the Prince?" She asked. "They would go against the laws of their land?"
"When the laws are unjust." Morgana said.
"Morgana." Arthur said in warning.
"Unjust thought they may be," The Queen said, "you are not the person who can decide to follow or not."
"Mother," Gwen said trying to stop her Mother. "A ruler who has stopped listening to his people and who is blind to their needs for the sake of his own prejudices, he can never be a true sovereign, for he is no longer ruling for the good of the land but for himself alone."
She took her mother's silence as acquiescence. "Morgana, you said something about picking the lock?"
"I thought Merlin could do it." Morgana said blithely.
"What?" Arthur asked. "We don't have time for you fickle jokes."
Merlin said, "I told you before, don't know how to pick a lock."
In the light, Gwen could see Morgana's eyes narrow in anger. "I think you do, Merlin. The same way you helped Arthur when he was caught in Trickler's spell. The same way you knew about the magic Queen Boudicca was using."
"Morgana, this is not time for your nonsense." Arthur said, but Gwen was looking at Merlin and saw that he was frozen with fear.
"I don't know what you're talking about." He protested.
"Yes, Merlin. You really do." Morgana said insisting. Her voice was colder than Gwen had ever heard it.
At that moment Gwen heard distant footsteps of a change in guard. That meant, according to Arthur, they had very little time before the drugged guards were found and their one chance to rescue her mother was gone.
"We have no time left, Merlin," Morgana said. "Think about it this way. When I needed your help before you gave me everything but what I really needed: someone who understood. Make it up to me now."
Gwen had no idea what Morgana was talking about. Obviously, neither did Arthur who looked between Morgana and Merlin with the same confusion Gwen felt. From one moment to the next, something in Merlin's demeanor changed. He still looked frightened but, as he squared his shoulders, she thought he also looked oddly confident.
"Please, if you could stand back from the cell door, You Majesty." He said and as the Queen took a few steps back, Merlin lifted his hand, fingers splayed, and Gwen heard him mutter soft sibilants she didn't understand. The door to the cell shuddered, jerked away from its hinges, and fell to the floor. It should have made noise enough to alert the castle, but the sound was muffled as if she was witnessing something from a great distance.
The five of them stood there, frozen in shock as they all realized what they had witnessed. In the ensuing silence, Morgana said smuggly, "I thought so."
Gwen tamped down on her feeling of betrayal as Arthur drew his sword from the scabbard. It was loud in the silence. "You are a liar." He said. "I can't believe-. How long? How long?"
"Always. Since Ealdor." Merlin said.
Something in Arthur snapped – he looked broken. "Morgause. My mother?"
"I am so, so sorry, Arthur." Merlin said reaching towards him though Arthur still held his sword out in front of him.
The sound of footsteps in the distance forced them to break the tableau and set them into action again. Arthur shook himself and said, "We have to go."
"Arthur, I'm-" Merlin tried to justify his actions.
"Not now Merlin. You can explain-" his lips twitched in barely concealed anger, "everything, everything, later."
Arthur scouted ahead of the group and at a key junction he waved them away from the turn they had to take and deeper into the dungeon.
"We'll never get out like this." Gwen whispered to Arthur.
"We will with a little help," he said.
Everyone remained silent as they walked through the dungeon into an abandoned tunnel
"I thought this had been sealed off again after Mordred?" Merlin asked.
"It was." Arthur said, running his free hand over his face in frustration. "And now you'll also have to tell me how you know the boy's name."
They were forced to stop at a large grate. Beyond it lay the forest on the eastern side of the castle. Gwen realized they were beyond the walls of the fortress and facing away from the town. It was a perfect escape route. Arthur waved at Merlin. Merlin looked at him like Arthur had gone crazy and then went up to the bars to push them. "I can't." He said and Arthur rolled his eyes before him mimicked Merlin's earlier gesture with his arm held out and fingers splayed. "Oh." Merlin said. As he preformed the magic his eyes glowed golden yellow in the dark tunnel. The bars bent as if heated in a forge, though they did not glow red. The gap was big enough to allow both Gwen and Queen Boudicca to escape. When they were both on the other side Merlin waved his hand again and the bars bent back to their original form.
She turned to say good-bye to her friends, and particularly to Arthur. But at this moment, when she knew she would never see them again and she had no time to give them a proper farewell she found words failed her. She hoped that all would be right between them. Morgana and Arthur both looked furious, Merlin looked scared. She loved them all so much and they needed her right now. But she had to leave. She was an outlaw now in Camelot and she had people depending on her for protection.
"Thank you all so much." She said, too exhausted to cry though sorrow threatened to overwhelm her. "Be careful."
"Gwen." Her mother called softly.
Gwen led her mother to the place where their horses waited for them. Queen Boudicca rode her horse hard, like a knight, and Gwen struggled to keep up. Gwen's horse, however, seemed sure-footed even in the dark and followed after the Queen's steed. They rode until the sun crested the eastern hills. The rode through the morning and as the sun reached its zenith they met up with the retinue just inside the border of Camelot. The traveling court cheered Gwen and their Queen upon their return, and for the first time, she felt truly welcomed by these people, her people.
Though exhausted, the court traveled until they were well beyond Camelot's border. Gwen found with each passing mile it was more and more difficult to stay upright in her saddle. The only thing keeping her awake was the fear of falling off her horse and being trampled under the hooves of those who rode behind her. Finally, late in the afternoon they set up camp.
Nelly and a few other servants set up her tent. Everyone was exhausted and Gwen tried to help but they refused to let their Princess, their new hero, pitch her own tent. She did mange to kick the servants out once the cot was set up. She looked at her things and realized that while Nelly had packed well, she had not packed anything of real meaning to Gwen aside from the dress hidden in her trousseau. Everything she truly cared about was still at her house in town. With no inner reserves left, she collapsed on her cot and cried until she slept.
Sometime later she was woken for a meal and though she was tempted to skip it for more sleep, she knew she could not miss this first dinner after the rescue. Though everyone was tired, they were in good spirits and cheered their Queen and their Princess. It was not a feast by any stretch of the imagination, just cold camp rations, but Gwen ate heartily and felt buoyed by her people's good cheer.
Later that evening, when she entered her tent again, she was startled to find an owl perched on one of the posts of her cot. She started to shoo it out when she noticed it had something tied to its foot. She edged towards it trying not to frighten it before she could grab the note. After she had removed the parchment from its foot it flapped its wings a few times and took off, appearing to fly though the walls of the tent.
"What was that?" She whispered under her breath, although she had a feeling she knew who had written the letter.
It was indeed from Merlin, who assured her everything was okay, that he was okay, and that while Morgana and Arthur were sulking, no one was going to lose their head. Uther was enraged that the court was gone and the Queen escaped. He had no idea that Arthur or Morgana had helped the Queen escape, instead blaming Iceni sorcery. Most of the day Arthur had been leading the knights on a goose chase through the countryside to give the court the last few hours they had needed that afternoon.
The last line of Merlin's note, however, was cryptic. It read: "When the owl returns to me, I'll be sending you another gift. Don't be surprised by any whirlwinds in your tent tonight."
It was bizarre statement. Since she had no idea how long magical owls took to fly back to Camelot, she decided to better organize her belongings for the road while she waited.
It wasn't even a few minutes after she set herself the task when she felt a small breeze stir in her tent. It grew stronger and in the center of the whirlwind the form of a man seemed to appear. It was as if a human body was being built by the wind from the feet up until suddenly, Arthur was there, holding a bag and looking terrified and windswept.
"I can't believe I have to do that again." He said dusting himself off.
"Gwen." He said, seeing her for the first time. He put down the bag he was carrying and took the few steps to her before he picked her up and kissed her. "I've wanted to do that since you left last night and I didn't have the chance. I thought I'd never have the chance again."
She kissed him back and murmured against his lips, "me too."
He rested his forehead against hers. "I have until sunrise. When it does, whatever horrible spell Merlin cast that allowed me to get here will reverse and I'll be back in Camelot."
"You trust him?" Gwen asked, not even sure if she trusted Merlin or his magic now even after he helped her escape.
"I don't-. For now? Enough. We had a long talk last night, along with Morgana, which was unexpected." He kissed her again. "We don't have time to talk about this Gwen. We have just this night."
"That is more than I ever thought I would have again." She said.
He turned from her to pick up his bag again. This time he handed it to her. "These are your things. Morgana went to your house this afternoon and picked them out. She said you'd want them."
She took the bag, marked with the Pendragon crest and Morgana's family's crest as well, marking it as one of Morgana's bags. As much as Gwen wanted to look in the bag right now, she also didn't want to waste any of her precious few remaining moments with Arthur digging through her memories. She could do that tomorrow, or any time in the future.
"I'm going to miss you so much." She said, unwilling to hide her feelings now that they had so little time.
"I don't care what I have to do; I'll work out a way to marry you Gwen." He said.
"We can't talk about that now. I can't think about that now." She said.
"If I have to unite all of Albion to make you my Queen, then so be it." He said and she laughed.
"That's impossible Arthur."
"Everything is made possible when I'm with you." He said and kissed her again.
They stayed up the whole night making love. The night was full of passion fueled by the knowledge that it must end. So Gwen held onto Arthur as much as she could for as long as she could and memorized each scar, each muscle, each freckle that graced his skin. She memorized the way he smelled, the way he tasted, the feel of his hair under her hand. She memorized the feel of his cock soft and spent or hard and eager. She took it all in and prayed that her memory would never fail her.
The sky outside the tent was beginning to turn soft heather grey and Gwen managed to kiss Arthur one last time before he started hunting around for his clothes. He left in a flurry of wind, his trousers only half done up, when the sun rose over the far hills to the east. She laughed at his expression of surprise and annoyance as he left, and though exhausted, she felt elated from their night together.
She knew she should sleep, but she was afraid that when she awoke this night would seem like a dream. She was not brave enough yet to face her future knowing it was without Arthur or her friends.
She opened the bag Arthur had left, looking to see if one of her favorite hair combs, good for travel, was packed when she came across a shallow blue ceramic bowl that wasn't hers. Under it was another note from Merlin explaining that it was a scrying bowl. He also wrote that Arthur, Morgana, and Merlin all had matching ones that could communicate with hers. She could call out to any of them and she would be able to speak to them for short periods of time. He assured her that the magic on these was powerful enough to last the distances and time involved.
She clutched the bowl to her chest until Nelly came to dress her for the day.