Early on, Elyan once said he didn’t understand how Gwen could bear it, almost accusingly. Gwen loved her brother dearly, but at that moment, she wanted to slap him. She didn’t reply; if she had, she would have yelled at him that he had no right, because he had not been there.
He had not been there when their father had died. Elyan had not been there to see his dead body flung on a cart, as an escaped and condemned traitor. Had not been there for all the days turning into weeks, the weeks turning into months, the months turning into years, in which Gwen had to live with the fact that any moment in Camelot, she could encounter the man who had ordered her father’s death, and she would not be able to do anything but bow her head and accept his orders.
Playing nurse for Uther as he was now was nothing by comparison.
No, that wasn’t true. It wasn’t nothing. It was many things, but not, as Elyan imagined, a great sacrifice, or a daily exercise to swallow her rage. Her rage had spilled out of her at last, when Uther had her arrested and threatened to kill her a second time, and everything that happened after had emptied her of it. Merlin had once asked her what she would do with Uther’s life in her hands, and Gwen had said that the thought of Uther alive or dead made her feel nothing. After the bloody interlude of Morgana as Queen, Gwen discovered this was no longer true.
Gwaine, bringing her flowers after a day of burials for all the dead Morgana and Morgause had left, and asked whether he would stay in Camelot now that Arthur had knighted him, had replied bluntly he would give it a try, but not if Uther regained his senses again. “I could not serve Uther,” he said. “Would make me feel sick.”
That same evening she had watched Arthur talking to his father for an hour without getting a reply, then asking Gaius how long this sickness would last, only to hear that there was nothing physically wrong with Uther, and that his mind and heart lay beyond their reach. She had been split in two, then, a part of her aching for Arthur and the other glad of it, which was how she discovered she was no longer indifferent to Uther’s fate.
“I served Uther,” she said to Gwaine. “For most of my life. Should I feel sick then?”
It was a rare spectacle to see Gwaine embarrassed.
“Of course not,” he protested. “You had no choice. I do.”
But there had always been choices. She was a free woman, not a child anymore. She could have left after her father’s death, could have sold the house and tried to start a new life elsewhere with the money. She had stayed then for a variety of reasons; a home was a home, her friends were here, Morgana and Merlin, and increasingly, she’d come to care about something that wasn’t even tangible; the hope for a better future. This, too had changed, from hope as something that was not there yet to hope as something she realized she had to work for, and something she shared with others. When Uther had raised unjust taxes and Gwen had appealed to Arthur about this, when Aredian flung his shadow on the town and Gwen had worked with Merlin to fight him, she had understood that the future she hoped for was something she had to work for now, in the present.
That was why she stayed. That was why she went to Gaius the next morning and asked him which of the servants had been put in charge of Uther, and whom to talk to about this. Which was when she realized there was no one surviving left in charge of organizing the duties and hours of Camelot’s servants, and that she had no idea of what her own position was anymore, with Morgana well and truly gone.
“You are a knight’s sister now,” Gaius said gravely, but with a twinkle in his eyes. “One could say this makes you the Lady Guinevere.”
“I’m not a lady.”
She wasn’t, but she was not a lady’s servant anymore, either, and somehow it seemed to make the most sense to appoint herself head of the household, at least for now, to organize the staff. She expected some resistance, but as it turned out, those who were still alive and chose to remain in Camelot were relieved, because they had not known quite how to treat her, either. Not just because of Elyan; because of the subject people did not talk about in her presence, only in whispers around the corners, as their glances went to her and Arthur whenever they were in the same room together. She wasn’t quite one of them anymore, and yet she was not one of the nobility, either, so being in charge of the servants allowed them to defer to her without having to treat her as something she was not, which made everyone feel more at ease. The courtiers, on the other hand, grumbled a lot, and not always outside of her hearing.
“If commoners can become knights now, and servants are given the run of the place, who knows what might happen in this kingdom next?” she heard one of them exclaim. Yes, who knows, Gwen thought, and her heart beat faster.
But you could not create something new while denying the past had ever existed. You could not build something good on a rotten ground, either, or justify a crime in the present by pointing
towards the future, though she once argued with Merlin about this.
“Sometimes you might have to,” he had said, not looking at her but sitting close as they warmed themselves at the fire; winter was coming. “Sometimes it could be the only way.”
“That is what Morgana thought, and Uther,” Gwen returned, and he flinched, but he insisted on his point.
“I don’t think that was what they were wrong about, Gwen.”
“What, then?” she asked, puzzled and feeling the cold a little keener.
“Their future only consisted of themselves and maybe one or two others in the end. Everyone else wasn’t real for them anymore.”
There was truth in that, but Gwen still thought Merlin wasn’t right. Putting herself in charge of Uther’s nursing was putting it to the test, though. Feeding him, cleaning him, dressing him, the reality of him was ever present. This was the man who had ordered her father’s death, and this was the man who would have ordered her own, not once, but twice. This was also the man who had given Arthur and Morgana life. She watched Arthur with his father, infinitely patient, tender, as all his usual arrogance and the old rudeness of days past was missing, and she watched Arthur trying to be Uther in the throne room sometimes, remote and stern. So much from Arthur came from Uther, both the ability to love and the ability to hurt.
“It’s very good of you to do this for him,” Gaius said with a little frown, meaning Uther as she cleaned Uther’s face.
“I’m not doing it for him. I do it for Arthur.”
He nodded as if he understood, but Gwen doubted he did. What she meant was so difficult to put in words. It was about Arthur loving Uther and her loving Arthur, yes, but it was also about reminding herself of the past, to make herself never be blind about how much it impacted the present. It was about overcoming without denying or making what happened easier.
After her father had died, Gwen had not talked about him with anyone. At first, it had hurt too much, and the only person she thought had a right to conversations about him, Elyan, wasn’t there. After Elyan had returned to her life, they did talk about him, a little, but there were so many other things to share and discuss, because their lives had changed so much in recent years.
There were many reasons why Morgana’s statement to her, “I forgot that you, too, had suffered”, had been the final cut to the tettered, worn out bond that had once had been Gwen’s love for the woman she had believed to be her friend as well as her mistress. But one of them was that Gwen didn’t think this particular remark had been malicious on Morgana’s part, or a lie. For Morgana, it was the simple truth. She had forgotten about Tom the blacksmith; if she remembered the event at all, it probably was only as the occasion where Uther had made her spent a night in chains. Undoubtedly, this was how Uther remembered it as well.
“The first memory I have of my father, “ Gwen said to Uther as he sat silently in his chair, looking out of the window to the courtyard where Morgana had recently ordered executions, where he had ordered so many executions before her, “is how he smelled when he bent over me to kiss me good night, all metal and fire.”
After the first sentence, it grew easier. The memories poured out of her like the hot metal her father had made into so many forms. In the year that she nursed Uther Pendragon, she finally grieved for her father in the open. She brought him to life again with story after story, sometimes about silly little things like the time her father had attempted to cook for her mother one day and had failed miserably at it, and sometimes about the keys to their life together, like the way they had longed for news about Elyan after he left or the time he had taught her how to forge a weapon, no matter how inappropriate the neighbours considered this for a girl.
Uther never commented on any of her stories. Sometimes, when he looked at her directly while she talked about Tom and pressed his lips together, Gwen thought he understood every word she said, and sometimes when he vaguely smiled at her she wondered whether he even remembered who she was, let alone understood what she was saying. Perhaps he did and perhaps he didn’t; perhaps she could make him see the reality of at least one person whom he had killed, and perhaps it was far too late for that. In either case, she couldn’t stop doing it.
There was one time, and only one, where Gwen was certain he understood at least one thing that she told him. This was when Gwen talked about one of the last swords her father had worked on, a wonder in balance, something he was really proud of.
"He never finished it," she said wistfully. "Merlin showed up in the middle of the night, said it was a matter of life and death and that he needed one in just that state. And he wouldn't lie about something like that, so I gave it to him. My father was angry at first, but he hadn't forgotten that Merlin had saved my life, and so he forgave me. But he said we'd have to live on barley soup for a while, because he had planned to sell that sword for a great deal of money."
She fell silent as it occurred to her this might have been one of the reasons why her father took the commission from Tauren the warlock that was to doom him.
"A matter of life or death," Uther repeated unexpectedly, eyes narrowed, leaning towards her. For a moment, she had the sense that his complete attention was on her, as it hadn't been since he had accused her of bewitching his son. And then, just as quickly as it had come, the spark of focus and presence went out of him. He sighed and turned his head away. But the repeated phrase proved that he must have listened to at least some of what she said.
As the months came and went and almost a year had passed since Morgana had ruled Camelot, people in Camelot had become accustomed to not seeing their king and Arthur in his place, to some of the knights not being of noble blood, and even Gwaine had stopped talking about how he would leave if Uther resumed his old position again, not because he had changed his mind but because nobody expected this anymore. Nobody, that was, except for Arthur. He made sure to visit his father at least once a day and to tell him about the affairs of the state, never as an uninterrupted monologue but with room for Uther to reply.
"What would you do," Merlin asked Gwen one day when they both watched Arthur lowly, patiently talking to his silent father, "if Uther became himself once more?"
She turned to look at Merlin and suddenly remembered how he had asked her what she would do if Uther's life was in her hands. Then and now, there was nothing playful in his voice; he sounded utterly serious.
"He might banish you again," Merlin continued. "Or make some nobles adopt you so Arthur can marry you in gratitude of what you do for him. Or maybe he'd pretend this entire year hasn't happened and behave as if you don't exist. But whatever he'd do, it would - change things." He kept watching Arthur. "So what would you do?"
She had no way of knowing why he asked, only that it wasn't an idle question. And miraculous cures happened sometimes. She remembered, all too well, her father recovering from the plague and the accusation of sorcery that followed; she remembered Morgana's recovery from her fall last year, and how this had been the last time she had been utterly glad about something concerning Morgana.
Gwen couldn't say she would feel nothing, as she once had done. It would be a lie. The idea of living in fear of Uther again repelled her. The idea of Uther actually accepting what she was to Arthur was too unlikely to contemplate, and besides, she didn't want to owe him anything.
"I'd look at that change," Gwen said at last, "and change it for the better, if I can. That's what I'd do." Merlin tried to raise an eyebrow in imitation of Gaius, but failed miserably at it, and despite the seriousness of their conversation, it made her smile.
"It doesn't matter what Uther does, Merlin," she murmured. "I can't answer for him. I can only answer for myself."
Arthur took his leave of his father and walked towards them. Behind him, she saw Uther glance in their direction, and if she were pressed to, she'd interpret his expression as weary resignation. He sank back into his chair, and suddenly she knew she had told him the last of her stories about her father. That night, as she prepared him for bed without embarassment and with the practice a year had given her, she said: "Elen the widow of the baker needs money to raise her children, so she's been trying to work at the tavern, only she is far too good a cake maker to be wasted there. I made her one of the cooks here, and you'll see what she can do on your son's birthday. And Sir Leon needs a new page, so I thought her son Jack would be just right."
As she told him about her life and tasks, about the servants and their needs, night sank, and no matter how brief it would be, it felt to her as if peace had come to Camelot.