It’s almost a relief to duck into the heat and noise of the smithy, such is the press and clamour of the crowd on the streets. Gareth feels peevishly resentful that there’s a crowd at all; the tourney’s being held on the green outside the city, surely there’s no need for so many people to be wandering about the streets.
Trying to make himself as politely obvious as possible without putting himself between the hammer and anvil, it takes him a few moments to catch the attention of the blacksmiths.
“What is it, lad?” one of them shouts at him, not even flinching as a wave of heat from the other man’s bellows makes Gareth’s eyes water.
“Helmet!” Gareth calls back shortly, his voice piping at the high volume. He swallows, trying to cast it lower on the next shout. “Sir Gwaine!”
The man gives a single, firm nod and lumbers away, returning moment later with the familiar piece of armour. With some relief, Gareth notes that it’s now free from the alarming dent that had recently made it so difficult for him to pull from his master’s head.
“Still needs polishing, though,” the blacksmith says as he hands it over. Gareth acknowledges the comment with a wry, long-suffering smile that has the blacksmith baring his teeth in amusement. “Off with you, then.”
Gareth nods his thanks and obeys. Outside, the steel gleams dully under a smokey patina and he sighs, dragging his sleeve across it ineffectually. Then he tucks the helmet under his arm and heads back to the tourney.
The roads of the lower town are cluttered with market stalls, locals and strangers alike either browsing or bellowing out advertisement of their wares. Gareth manages to dart between the strolling masses easily enough, but the closer he gets to the outer wall, the slower his pace becomes, until the the foot traffic slows to a trickle through the comparatively narrow gate. Exasperated, Gareth can’t help but hope the King doesn’t declare a tourney every year at the anniversary of his coronation—with the rate the kingdom is growing, within a few years there’d be no room left to move at all.
At last Gareth gets into the open air and the tourney fields open up ahead of him. The peaceful vista with road wending through that he’s used to seeing upon stepping out the gate is absent. Instead the landscape is dominated by the red and yellow canopy of the royal pavilion, pennants twisting idly above; around it are clustered numerous tents of varying colours and shades, each flying their own colours. This far away there seems barely an inch to move between them, though Gareth has walked those narrow paths countless times in the past few days.
Beyond the competitors’ tents lies the combat field itself—hidden from view by the stands, but he can hear the low roar of the crowd rise up from it and carry on the sluggish breeze, the sound not unlike the rush of a wave onto a shore. Further in the distance—on the slopes leading down to the city—is a motley spread of spectators’ tents, belonging to those come from miles away with no place to stay in the city.
The smoke of a few cooking fires rises up from the patchy brown mass, and from nearby, too—the path from the city to the tourney is dotted with opportunistic vendors selling food, and the scent rising makes Gareth’s mouth water and stomach twist in sudden hunger. He elbows his way through more meandering crowds—taking advantage of the fact that many of the tourists step aside when they see his colours and the armour he’s bearing—and exchanges a small coin for a piece of meat on a stick.
He’s already biting into it as he’s walking away, wolfing it down in a few mouthfuls. It could be rabbit, or even rat as far as he knows; it’s too hot to tell as it scalds his tongue and lumps down his throat. And then his hands are too greasy; he hurries on to the quieter surrounds of the competitors’ tents and surreptitiously wipes his hands on the canvas bearing colours he recognises from an earlier bout.
Sir Lancelot would disapprove of the gesture, but Sir Gwaine would undoubtedly be grinning praise in the background even as he did; Gareth smiles and jogs on.
He needs to circle around the back of the stands to get to Sir Gwaine’s tent—Camelot’s knights have pride of place nearest the field of combat, of course—and the flow of nobles in and out of the more well-appointed spectator boxes causes him more frustration than the bustle in the city did. For of course he can’t just elbow and push his way through this crowd, certainly not while wearing his master’s colours. Trying to get through them is like, as Sir Gwaine once aptly put it, pissing in the wind.
Finally Gareth clears the worst of it, having being borne closer to the stands in his attempt to politely cross the flow of pedestrians, and as he’s about to turn back in the right direction, someone nearby calls out, “You there!”
Its by sheer force of will that Gareth manages to withhold a sigh as he turns to see who’s hailed him; he schools his features into politeness as a young woman trots towards him. He takes in her garb and bearing quickly; she’s dressed well, but not as finely as a lady, and a lady surely wouldn’t be hailing and running after him anyway. A handmaiden then, and not one of Camelot; Gareth sketches a polite bow and waits for her to announce her business.
“You’re Sir Gwaine of Camelot’s squire, are you not?” she asks breathlessly with a hint of a hopeful smile. Her eyes dart over his chest, taking in the dark blue tunic and the small heraldic device embroidered on the breast. This close he can see her cheeks are a little pinked from the sun, or perhaps just from the exertion of running to catch him.
Gareth can’t help but smile back, taking her lead in it, some of his wariness loosening at her friendly demeanour. It’s hard enough keeping to the bounds of propriety in Camelot, let alone dealing with the customs of foreigners as well. “I am, Miss.”
She smiles again, this time more assured. She holds out her hand as if to give something to him. Confused, he opens his own to accept it.
“The Lady Eldreth asks that you convey this favour to your master,” she says, and deposits a ribbon of purple silk into Gareth’s hand.
Gareth blinks at it. “I—um.”
She seems to be waiting for a proper response, and Gareth scrambles for one, struggling for diplomacy without being misleading. It had never occurred to him to be found in such a situation—other knights had ridden in the joust with favours tied to their lances, but… Well, Sir Gwaine already wore his colours.
“You may assure your Lady that I have done so,” he says at last, hoping his doubt doesn’t show through too much in his tone, turning his words impolite.
Her expression loses some of its formality, turning from ceremonial to just plain cheerful as she smiles at him again. She bobs briefly in a curtsey, and turns away.
“Wait,” Gareth calls after her, unsure of what he’s going to say but knowing he can’t leave it at that. She turns back, and Gareth works his jaw and tries yet again to think how to phrase what he has to say. The playful breeze pushes loose ringlets of her hair across her face, and when she delicately tucks them back again, he closes his mouth and swallows. Her inquisitive expression shifts to something slightly more amused, in a bashful sort of way.
“How should I… find the Lady Eldreth again, should I need to return a message?” he asks at last.
Her lips quirk, and she gestures upwards towards the noble stands above them, overlooking where they’re speaking. “I will look for you here.”
Gareth nods jerkily, and waits until she’s walked away again before he turns and runs. He’s beyond late, now.
His mind still clamours for words, experimental cadences matching the pounding of his feet on the grass as he darts between the tents, practicing just what he’ll say about that encounter. He slows when the blue tent comes into view at last—flanked by Sir Lancelot’s gold and Sir Elyan’s green—and attempts to get his breathing under control, resolving to enter with some dignity, rather than just burst in. Before he can lift up the flap, though, he hears voices from within, and instinct makes him halt instead. He barely thinks about it before ducking to the side, into the narrow space between blue and yellow tents.
“I have a squire, you know,” Sir Gwaine says from within, his lilting voice carrying clearly like the canvas is no barrier at all. Gareth startles at the unexpected immediacy of hearing himself spoken of; though Sir Gwaine’s tone is quietly amused rather than irritated, Gareth’s conscience is plucked.
He calms himself again as another voice murmurs in return, “Let me do this for you. It’s not as if I don’t know how.”
Carefully, so carefully, Gareth rises on tiptoes to peer through a gap in the canvas between the tent wall and canopy. Sir Gwaine stands facing away, gambeson already on and coif slouched over his shoulders. Standing opposite, fiddling with Sir Gwaine’s breastplate, is Merlin—Lord Merlin, Gareth has to remind himself: spending most of his time amongst the knights means he hears the honorific used rarely. Though Merlin himself never seems that bothered by it, and keeps the same company.
Merlin settles the armour over Sir Gwaine’s shoulders and sets about buckling it firmly with quick, hard jerks of the leather, making Sir Gwaine’s body rock slightly with the force of it. He’s faster at it than Gareth, more efficient, and Gareth feels his pride sink until he remembers the gossip he’d heard when he first arrived with Sir Gwaine in Camelot: that the Court Sorcerer was not born noble, but previously held the position of the King’s manservant.
Even so, seeing him so expertly strap Sir Gwaine into his armour just weaves another thread of mystery into the incomprehensible tapestry that Gareth’s been trying to decipher for over a year, now. Even before he knew who Merlin was, Gareth had harboured a profound curiosity for Sir Gwaine’s paramour. In Gareth’s early days as a squire, every facet of knightly behaviour had taken his keen interest, but Sir Gwaine’s moodiness and secrecy on this topic in particular made it doubly intriguing. Since returning to Camelot and discovering the truth of it—inasmuch as anything was revealed—the intrigue had transformed into fascination, fed by the briefest of glimpses into the partnership.
Gareth holds his breath, barely blinking as he tries to take in every detail of this private moment.
“You shouldn’t be in here, you know.”
Merlin glances up briefly at Sir Gwaine’s words, his lips already pressed tight in concentration as he fiddles with the finer buckles of the vambraces.
“You can’t sneak around like you used to,” Sir Gwaine continues when Merlin doesn’t answer. “My opponents will no doubt claim that Camelot’s sorcerer has aided my victory.”
Merlin frowns. “You seem sure of your success.”
“I’m not aiding anything.” Merlin punctuates the statement with another curt tightening of a buckle. “Just trying to ensure you don’t get your head knocked in a second time.”
Sir Gwaine chuckles lowly, a sound Gareth is familiar with and yet not, and he watches with held breath as Sir Gwaine turns his hand in Merlin’s grip, making Merlin look up to meet his eyes instead.
The sound of a throat clearing behind him makes Gareth fall back onto his heels, stumbling a little with the speed at which he turns around. Sir Lancelot is standing a scant few paces away, as if just having stepped out of his own tent, watching Gareth with his eyebrow raised.
Gareth flushes deeply, and Sir Lancelot shakes his head slightly, expression disapproving. Without speaking, he points two fingers at his own eyes, then one at Gareth in a distinct I’m watching you gesture, and walks on.
Mortified, Gareth stands where he is for a few moments longer, head throbbing with the heated embarrassment of being caught. Helmet still tucked under his arm, he scrubs his clammy palms on his tunic and struggles to force the colour back off his face. Then he marches back around to the tent flap, making a little more noise than necessary in pushing it back, waiting until the last moment to look.
“Your helmet, Sir,” he says as Sir Gwaine and Merlin look up at his entry. He holds up the armour in question. “It still needs polishing, I might have time—”
“Never mind that, I’ll take care of it,” Merlin says, sweeping forward and taking the helmet from him. For all that his movements are brusque, he gives Gareth a grateful smile that prods at the little bundle of self-conscious guilt in Gareth’s belly. As if sensing Sir Gwaine’s sceptical look, Merlin then turns to shoot a warning look back at him. “What? I’m not about to ensorcel it to come off and bludgeon your opponent to death. Just a little magical polish.”
At that, Sir Gwaine grins suggestively, and Gareth suddenly remembers the ribbon in his pocket. “Sir, I—” Sir Gwaine looks to him expectantly and Gareth closes his mouth again. He takes another breath, deciding. “I have another errand. I’ll— I won’t be long.” And he turns and pushes out under the tent flap again, setting off at a run back towards the noble stands.
He only has to stand around awkwardly for a few minutes before Lady Eldreth’s handmaiden appears again, but it gives him time to catch his breath and work out what he wants to say. He bows briefly as she approaches again, and holds the ribbon out to her. She takes it, looking confused.
“Sir Gwaine is grateful, but must politely decline the Lady Eldreth as he bears the favour of another already,” he says formally, praying his improvised words hold up.
The girl smiles ruefully. “She will be disappointed.” Gareth opens his mouth again, draws a breath to say god-knows-what, but she continues before he can. “Not that it’s entirely unexpected.” The look she gives him then is companionable more than anything else, and he finds himself grinning back, words unnecessary. “Does he have you running about like this a lot, then?” she asks.
Gareth huffs out a long-suffering breath. “Oh yes.” It’s not a lie, exactly—granted, he’s not out courting favours from various ladies on Sir Gwaine’s behalf, but he’s fairly certain that at least half the errands he’s sent out on are ones invented on whims that coincide with Merlin’s visits to their tourney tent.
“Here then,” the handmaiden says, and steps close enough to him that his breath catches, and while Gareth is still searching her eyes she presses something into his hand. “Perhaps you might accept this.”
It’s another scrap of cloth, undyed and woven more coarsely, fibres catching on his callouses when he tests the feel of it between his fingers. He looks up at her again, confused. “Sir Gwaine—” he begins.
She flushes, gesturing to cut him off. “I mean to say—” She bites her lips, looking anywhere else but him, until she meets his eyes shyly. Gareth feels his face grow hot in response, even still feeling entirely unsure of what’s going on. “Perhaps you… might accept this favour.” She pauses nervously. “From me.”
He gapes for a moment, then snaps his mouth shut again, aware of just how loutish it makes him appear and how inappropriate for this moment that is. Nonetheless, he can’t help but fumble his words, utterly unprepared. “I, um. My lady—”
“Oh,” she says, and he feels comforted at least that she seems to feel as awkward as he does, if the pink staining her cheeks is anything to go by, even as something in his chest is starting to catch up with events, flapping around wildly. “Iona. My name is Iona.” She curtseys a little again, her expression sheepish, movements self-conscious.
He folds his fist around the handkerchief, lifts it to press to his breastbone as he returns the gesture with a shallow bow, from which he comes up again grinning. “Gareth,” he offers.
There’s always a little surge of exhilaration each time he gives his name and sees it so blithely accepted. Her broad smile in response this time is something else entirely; something new and exciting thumping through him.
From the combat grounds a hush falls, and as the breeze turns again the sound of the King’s voice carries to them wordlessly, no doubt opening the field for the first bout of the afternoon. Iona looks up behind her toward the noble stands, and glances back at him apologetically. “The Lady Eldreth—”
Gareth nods. He’s neglected his duties significantly, but if he runs he can be on the sidelines in time to see Sir Gwaine step back onto the field. “Thank you. Iona,” he says, a thrill flitting through him as she bites down on a smile at her name. “Perhaps—”
“Find me later,” she says boldly, and skips backwards a few paces before turning and hurrying back toward the stands, skirts tangling around her ankles until she hitches them up higher.
The roar of the crowd startles Gareth out of his motionless state, caught staring after her as wild thoughts rush through his head. He tucks the handkerchief into his pocket and runs towards the sound of combat, and this time at least, there are no obstacles to slow him.