They leave the hall long before the festivities end—as is traditional, Gwen keeps reminding herself. The chorus of wordless shouts and table-thumping that accompanies their exit is just as traditional, and frankly unsurprising, given the sheer volume of drink that’s been consumed since the wedding feast began.
She can blame the heat in her cheeks on the wine she’s drunk herself, though by the time the sound of revelry has completely faded in the distance she feels very sober indeed. Arthur leads them on a very circuitous route to get outside; one that involves strolling nonchalantly past guards on their way to the royal chambers, then making a very stealthy—not to mention giggly—change of direction, and it takes them to darker corridors and cooler stone. When the night air is so close that Gwen can smell it, she tightens her grip on Arthur’s hand, pulling him back from the archway that leads out into the garden. “Wait.”
Arthur comes back to her without resistance, resting his hands at her waist instead and drawing her in for a kiss that tastes like rich feast fare and heavy wine. He’s so warm, so warm, and Gwen finds her arms wrapped around his neck as her whole body cleaves to him, surging with the joy that she can have him, have this, at last. Still, she makes herself withdraw, taking a deep breath as she gently pushes him back far away enough to look into his eyes again. “Are you sure?”
His hands grasp her face, and he kisses her once more; a brief, firm confirmation in his lips pressed against hers. “Yes. Now, let’s get out there before he runs off again.”
Gwen laughs breathlessly—“Don’t even joke—” as Arthur tugs her outside. His words cause sudden sharpness in her chest as her anticipation wrenches into fear—but then Arthur glances over his shoulder at her and grins, and she feels like she could just float right up into the air, her feet skipping along quickly after his longer strides.
She’s been out in the gardens at night once before; with Morgana, both of them on the cusp of womanhood, sneaking out well after dark with their minds full of adventure and hearts light with gleeful disobedience. Even with the years and events passed since, the gardens still seem as otherwordly as they did then. The grass is springy beneath their feet, the fragrance their footsteps stir up somehow more delicate and perceptible than it is during the day. Around them, the trees and topiaries loom mysteriously, observing their passage not entirely impassively.
Gwen’s breath turns shallow and quick, and she shivers; somehow the dark brings with it the thrill of potential. Anything is possible with the stars shining down from above, as still and constant as if they’ve been stitched there by Gwen’s own needle; the night is so clear and crisp that the air feels like it snaps as she draws it into her lungs.
Her eyes have adjusted well enough by the time she starts to see a different kind of light ahead of them. Arthur’s pace slows even as it becomes more purposeful; she draws abreast and changes the grip of their hands to interlace their fingers, squeezing tightly.
The lights look like candles lit amidst branches—their colour definitely warmer than the glittering coolness of the firmament above—though their glow is steadier than a flame ought to be. They’re scattered sparsely in a small copse that Gwen can’t even remember seeing in the daytime, and even lit up, the clutch of trees seems impenetrable. Arthur has to duck as they step beneath the branches, leading them between the dark gateposts of the trunks.
They don’t walk for very long, perhaps no more than ten paces, and then the foliage thins even as the lights cluster closer, until she and Arthur are stepping into a clearing as brightly lit as a chamber catching the evening sun—and Lancelot is there.
He shines in the golden light, taking up all her attention all at once as she lets go of Arthur to step forward. Lancelot strides to her and they meet in an embrace, his arms closing breathlessly tight around her. She has to stand on tip-toes just to press her closed lips to his jaw, his cheek rough against hers. She’d made herself not think about him during the wedding, and the coronation—there was so much more weighing on those moments than her happiness, and his place with the knights then had been just as important as hers beside Arthur on the throne.
But now those moments—and all the anxiousness built up behind them—are past, and all that’s left is the sweet swell of anticipation: she’s here now, with Arthur and Lancelot, and no crowd to scrutinise and judge…
Well, they’re not completely alone. When she finally draws back from Lancelot to let Arthur take her place in his arms she sees Merlin, standing a polite distance away but watching them shamelessly. He’s grinning so broadly it’s practically mischievous, and she can’t help but go over to pull him into a hug as well. Their fine clothes whisper together, the sensation of it new and unexpected, and it’s that that tips her over; she squeezes him tightly and whispers, “This is a dream, isn’t it?”
He pulls back enough to look into her face, smile softening, and for a moment words aren’t needed; she can see in his expression that he’s just as overwhelmed as she is. Uther is dead, Merlin is a sorcerer and Gwen is queen. And not just that—as if that’s not enough—but she’s standing in a copse of trees lit by magic, about to finally finish this long, impossible courtship with the two men she loves… And it’s real.
“Are you responsible for this?” she asks Merlin at last, when she’s managed to get the tightness in her chest to loosen again. She quirks an eyebrow and glances up into the trees.
Merlin flourishes with the drape of his sleeve and dips his head in a bow. “Only the best for your Majesty.”
Her breath catches again on her laugh, and she swats at him. “Don’t,” she says, only half joking. The circlet on her brow had become almost comfortable enough to forget in the hours since Arthur had placed it there, and the speed at which she’d become accustomed to it makes something flutter anxiously in her stomach.
Merlin’s eyes dart over her shoulder just a moment before Arthur takes her hand again, and she turns to see him and Lancelot standing behind her, their hands clasped tightly as well.
“Ready?” Merlin asks them, serious and amused all at once. Arthur nods.
Gwen’s father had always had faith that Gwen would live a virtuous life—whether in marriage or service—and she can’t help but wonder what he would think of this. Married twice in one day keeps tumbling through her head, and between that and the giddy laughter caught somewhere at the base of her throat, she feels considerably light-headed.
Merlin makes them face each other, three points of a triangle. They make such a mess of trying to arrange their hands, unable to stop sneaking glances at each other’s faces, that Merlin ends up taking their wrists and putting them in place himself, muttering all the while. Gwen can’t stop smiling—and can’t stop from giggling, either, when Arthur begins to reply to Merlin’s muttered comments with some droll suggestions of his own.
It’s nothing like the somber ceremony of this afternoon—aside from the feeling taken root in Gwen’s chest that this, too, is something momentous—and when she looks away from Merlin’s fussing and the unwatched fondness in Arthur’s gaze, she catches Lancelot’s eyes. He’s grinning too, looking as flushed as she feels, and she recognises the expression of near-disbelief on his face: he’s staring at her as if half convinced she’ll vanish into smoke if he looks away. She wants to touch her hand to his face, reassure him with a kiss that this is really happening, that she wants him there, that she downright wants him. She doesn’t dare undo Merlin’s work though; just squeezes Lancelot’s hand where Merlin’s placed it in hers.
Some of the tension around his eyes smooths away, and he holds her gaze while he strokes his fingers gently against the inside of her wrist. The sensation, light as it is, travels right to the core of her, and when he sees her shudder, his expression shifts subtly to something more promising than hopeful. Abruptly Gwen has had enough of dwelling in this moment, is quite looking forward to what happens after, thank you very much. Chastity had never seemed a hardship before this year, and it was a veritable trial once Lancelot came back to Camelot and she had both of their longing looks—and covert kisses—to deal with.
She hears Arthur’s soft sound of amusement, and she and Lancelot both turn to look at him. The light gilds the fine features that Gwen so admires, but it’s the suggestive tilt to Arthur’s mouth that Gwen adores even more.
Merlin clears his throat. “All right, don’t let go now or you’ll ruin it all. Let me just find the end of this thing…” He holds a half-tangled coil of cloth in his hands; one long strip of undyed, finely woven linen. He somehow manages to find the end of it without knotting it further, and then he takes a deep breath and begins to wind it carefully around their crossed wrists and joined hands.
The words spoken in front of the court had been of duty and servitude; Merlin speaks of love and loyalty as he binds them together, his tone solemn yet rich with his sincerity. But Gwen doesn’t need to pay attention to the words this time. Instead she just allows them to wash over her, soaking into her skin and down to her bones. Her gaze stays on the beloved faces of her men, and beneath the binding of cloth she can’t tell whose hand is whose, and it doesn’t matter at all.