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Chapter 1: A Secret Touch

"Gaius?" Guinevere called softly, raising a tentative hand to knock on the chamber door.

There was no response.

Hesitantly, she pushed it open a crack. She hated to enter the chamber without permission, but Morgana had used the last of her sleeping draught that evening and sometimes needed an extra dose to help her sleep through the night.


There were no candles burning, but the chamber was softly illuminated by moonlight pouring in from the window. One last call yielded nothing; the only response was silence, interrupted by the occasional muffled snore. Gwen wavered indecisively for a moment, then slipped inside.

Having been sent to fetch refills for Morgana on countless occasions, she knew where Gaius usually kept them. Unfortunately, the second shelf nearest the door was littered with dozens of bottles and vials, several of which held contents that looked exactly like the potion she needed. And since there were no labels to identify one from the other, it seemed like a lost cause.

She sighed helplessly, then jumped as the sound was echoed by a soft moan and a rustle of bedclothes behind her.

That's not Gaius, she thought to herself as she turned around, straining to see in the darkness. The silhouette was too tall, too slender, and even though the person was lying on their back, the round belly she couldn't help but associate with the old man was noticeably absent. Was it Merlin? But why would he be sleeping out here?

Her nervousness was overcome by intense curiosity as she took a few steps closer and looked down at the sleeping man.

He was young, perhaps only a couple years older than herself. She couldn't quite make out the exact color of his hair in the dim light, but it was obviously dark, somewhat shaggy and unkempt. His skin was tanned beneath the pallor of his fever and his clothing was made of rough homespun.

He had to be a commoner then, not a guest of the court. But what was he doing here? Gaius usually treated the townspeople in their own homes, making nightly rounds to see to the more serious cases. She'd known only of close friends or noble guests to actually spend the night in the physician's quarters.

Closing the remaining distance between herself and the bed, Gwen gazed down the man's face, unable to recall ever seeing him before. Perhaps he was a friend of Merlin's, some visitor from Ealdor and had encountered an unfortunate mishap on his journey?

But wouldn't Merlin have said something if he'd been expecting a guest? Not that she expected him to tell her everything about his life, of course, it just didn't seem like him not to mention it at all.

Then again, she'd barely even spoken to him that day. She'd been working on a new gown for Morgana and had barely left her chambers until midafternoon. There'd been no time to exchange more than a brief greeting as he'd passed her in the halls, muttering something about needing to gather mushrooms for a stew Gaius meant to cook that evening.

Putting her confusion aside, she leaned forward and studied the man more closely.

Beneath the light sheen of sweat and the sickly pallor of his skin, she couldn't help but notice that he was quite attractive. Crescents of long, dark lashes shielded his eyes, he had a straight, strong nose and his lips could only be described as sensual, even if it made her feel a little silly to think of them that way. Indeed, it was impossible to find any cause for complaint – even the coarse stubble that covered the lower half of his face somehow only added to his appeal.

She was used to seeing good looking men, of course. Many of the Knights of Camelot qualified as such… even Prince Arthur was pleasant enough to look at if one managed to ignore his insufferable arrogance long enough to notice his redeeming qualities.

And yet she couldn't tear her eyes away from this stranger's face, struck by the impression that there was something different about him she couldn't quite put her finger on. Perhaps it was only that he seemed so vulnerable as he lay there wounded and unconscious? No, not exactly… but what else could it be?

He let out another soft moan and she abandoned her whimsical musings, immediately shifting her attention to his injury. Studying the bandage that covered his side, she frowned as she noticed the splotches of blood that stained the snowy fabric. How deep was the wound? Was it serious? Maybe she should wake Gaius to see to him?

But then she shook her head with a small smile. If the man was in danger, there was no way he'd have been left out here alone and unsupervised. Gaius was a conscientious physician, known to keep all night vigils at a sickbed rather than leave a critically ill patient on their own until morning.

Even with that reassurance, she still couldn't help feeling concerned for the injured stranger. Reaching out with only the slightest hesitation, she laid a gentle hand on his forehead, which was cool and clammy in the aftermath of his recent fever. Worried he might be cold without a cover, she picked up a blanket and spread it carefully over his sleeping body.

But rather than leaving after that, which would've been the sensible thing to do, she settled herself on the stool beside him. She didn't understand the impulse to keep touching him, but it was difficult to stop herself as long as she kept coming up with excuses for the gestures.

She wiped the lingering traces of sweat from his face to make him more comfortable, not because she enjoyed the texture of his skin beneath her fingers. Smoothing an errant lock of hair back from his brow had nothing to do with how soft it was, only that he seemed to be resting more peacefully, as if he were soothed by her touch. Yes, that was a perfectly valid reason to…

Of course, there was no excuse for the way her heart began to beat a little faster when he let out a soft sigh of contentment.

"What are you doing, Gwen?"

The whisper came from behind, shattering the spell and nearly making her jump out of her skin in the process. Letting out a sharp gasp, she rose so quickly that she knocked the stool over with a clatter, wincing as the man mumbled fretfully in his sleep.

"M-Merlin! I didn't... I wasn't..."

Realizing she'd been tenderly caressing the face of a stranger made her cheeks turn scarlet, made worse by the fact that it was the middle of the night. Swallowing hard, she desperately searched her mind for a reasonable explanation.

"Morgana was low on her sleeping draught and I..." She took a deep breath before she continued. "I thought I might be able to find it myself and not disturb anyone, but I didn't know which bottle was which, and..."

Merlin walked over to the shelf she'd been exploring earlier, retrieving one of the tiny bottles and handing it to her with a smile.

"I could use a bit of this myself," he grumbled. "Can you believe how loud Gaius snores? He's almost as bad as Arthur!"

Gwen smiled back, relieved to feel a little more like herself again after being strangely mesmerized and then startled out of her wits. Meanwhile, Merlin was still staring at her curiously, obviously expecting the rest of her explanation.

"I saw him while I was looking for the draught," she said, nodding awkwardly at the bed across the room. "I just thought I'd try and make him a little more comfortable since there was no one else awake to tend to him. Not that he needed tending. I mean, I'm sure Gaius already did everything he could..."

"It's okay, Gwen," Merlin reassured her as she trailed off in embarrassment. He was used to her clumsy apologies whenever she thought she'd said anything to offend someone. "I'm sure whatever you did was fine."

"Who is he?" she asked, unable to restrain her curiosity any longer.

"He says his name is Lancelot. I don't know anything else about him, but he saved my life."

Merlin went on to explain a strange creature with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion, his eyes growing wide as he described the vicious way it had attacked him and how the stranger had come to his rescue.

"The sword broke?" she said in disbelief. "How is that possible?"

"I don't know, Gwen. I saw him strike it right in the chest and you wouldn't believe it but..."


"He's every bit as skilled as Camelot's greatest knights. Maybe even better than Arthur himself!"

Gwen resisted the urge to smile. She admired Merlin for many things – intelligence, compassion, humor and humility. But he wasn't a fighter himself, and it seemed unlikely that he'd know the first thing about judging anyone else's skill in combat either. Deciding that gratitude must be prompting a good bit of unintentional exaggeration, she chose not to call him out on it, changing the subject instead.

"Will he be all right?"

"Oh, yeah. Gaius says it's only a surface wound. The fever seems like it's already broken and with a good night's rest, he should be fine by morning."

Gwen was relieved. She didn't know anything about Lancelot, but somehow, she'd become invested in his fate.

He helped Merlin, after all, she reassured herself before she could start to wonder why she cared so much about an absolute stranger. He must've done something good to earn so much praise. And any friend of Merlin's is a friend of mine.

"I better be getting back to Morgana so I can drop this off and go home," she said, feeling guilty upon the realization that she must be keeping him awake. "You look tired and I'd like at least a couple hours of sleep in my own bed before morning."

"Yes, I should be getting back to my... floor," he responded with a rueful smile. "I guess Gaius and Lancelot are the only ones getting any decent rest around here tonight."

At the mention of Lancelot's name, she gave his slumbering form lingering glance. He must've been sleeping deeply if the sound of bottles clanking around and the conversation they'd periodically forgotten to whisper hadn't woken him. Maybe what she'd done really had given him some comfort after all. She hoped so.

"Merlin? You won't say anything to anyone about... you know..." she trailed off, trying to think of a way to describe it that wouldn't make her stutter and turn beet red.

He seemed confused by her request, which made her feel silly upon the realization that from his perspective, she'd only taken a moment to tend to a sick patient. It wasn't as if he could sense the strange attraction that had motivated her actions.

"Don't worry, Gwen, I'm good at keeping secrets," he said with an enigmatic smile. "But if you're worried the rest of the world is going to find out that you have a kind heart, I'm afraid they already know."

Blushing, she slapped him lightly on the arm and wished him good night, shooting one last glance at the bed across the room before she turned and fled the chamber.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Camelot

The following morning dawned clear and cool, the fresh breeze from the open window waking Lancelot with its soft caress. Lifting his head, he glanced around in confusion, his eyes falling on the elderly man who was moving around on the other side of the chamber.

"Hello," he said, pausing to clear his throat. "Where am I?"

The man turned around, revealing a kind, careworn face. "You don't remember? Well, I suppose it's no surprise. You were already quite feverish when Merlin brought you to me last night."

Merlin... that was familiar.

And then Lancelot began to remember the events of the previous afternoon – happening upon the scrawny, dark haired stranger who'd been in danger of being ravaged by some peculiar looking creature. Yes, he'd attempted to fight the beast off and shattered his sword in the process, followed by a frantic race to safety and breathless introductions.

Much more vaguely, he recalled the man named Merlin reviving him with a gentle but persistent shake to his shoulder, promising a physician's care, food, and shelter if they could just make it back to Camelot.

Camelot. That must be where he was then. Perhaps the old man was the physician Merlin had spoken of?

Camelot. At long last. Lancelot remembered throwing his arm around Merlin's shoulders, being half assisted, half dragged along as his companion had babbled an endless stream of encouragements he couldn't quite recall. Although he remembered nothing after that, Merlin was clearly stronger than he looked if he'd managed to bring him this far. All the way to Camelot.

He was in Camelot… the place he had been trying to get to his whole life, it seemed, and he couldn't even remember entering the city gates, nor the town they must have passed through in order to get to wherever he was now. But all that mattered was that he was here. The thought filled him with elation.

"My name is Gaius," the old man said, after giving him a moment to collect his thoughts. "I'm the Court Physician."

"Lancelot," he replied automatically as he puzzled over that. The court physician? Am I in the palace then? It didn't seem possible, especially since Merlin had been dressed as humbly as Lancelot was himself. Was he an apprentice to this man, or maybe a servant?

Gaius seemed to sense his confusion.

"Merlin is my assistant, as well as servant here in the palace. I'm sure he'll tell you more about himself... if he ever decides to grace us with his presence, that is," he said with an exasperated sigh and a wave toward a door that must have led to a separate bedchamber. There was a twinkle of amusement in his eyes, making it clear that his words were not truly meant as a criticism.

Lancelot sat up on the narrow bed, wincing and pressing a hand to his side as he did so.

"The wound is nothing serious. Now that the fever has passed, the remaining soreness should be gone by the end of the day. I can give you something for the pain if you need it."

"No, thank you. I'll be fine." He didn't like to take medicine when it wasn't absolutely necessary to do so and the pain wasn't so bad. It had caught him off guard was all.

Gaius nodded. "Perhaps some breakfast then?"

Lancelot nodded, feeling his stomach growl at the mere suggestion of food. Even more famished than he'd thought, he quickly devoured the bowl of porridge he was given, not minding that it was a little on the bland side as long as it was hot and filling.

Soon enough, a groggy looking Merlin emerged from the other room, mumbling a brief "good morning" as he seated himself at the table and helped himself to a serving of breakfast.

"Porridge again?" he grumbled at the older man. But then he began to eat voraciously, his poorly disguised enthusiasm taking the sting from his complaint.

"If you want something different, you'll just have to wake up a little earlier and fix it yourself."

"I'll wake up earlier when I don't have to share my room with someone who snores loud enough to wake the dead," Merlin shot back, trying to hide a grin.

"My boy, when you're as old as I am, we'll see how loud you snore! Fair enough though. Lancelot can stay in there with you tonight and I'll sleep in my own bed. It's far more comfortable than yours anyway."

Lancelot had been quietly listening to their bantering, enjoying the obvious closeness between them. It was only at the mention of his name that Merlin turned around, finally noticing he was awake. Lancelot wasn't offended. He was good at being unobtrusive, an ability that often served him well in combat. The loud, aggressive types never failed to underestimate him due to his quiet nature, giving him a surprising advantage over his foes.

"You look much better than you did last night," Merlin mumbled around a mouthful of food. "Glad to see it."

"Thanks to you," Lancelot replied, ignoring the lingering pain in his side as he rose and joined the others at the table. "I don't know how I can repay your kindness."

Merlin looked surprised. "You were only injured because you saved my life. I'm the one that should be in debt to you."

He opened his mouth to protest, ready to insist that Merlin owed him nothing. It was what he'd been training to do for years, after all. He'd been glad to help, even if that assistance had been far more ineffective than he would've liked.

Just then, Gaius rose and picked up a case of what must've been medical supplies. "I'm off to see to my patients. Merlin, you might want to see that our guest receives some hot water and clean clothes. I'm sure he'll want to bathe. Come to think of it, it wouldn't hurt for you to do the same."

After clearing the breakfast dishes, Merlin dragged a large tub from a nearby closet and scurried back and forth with a pair of buckets. Ignoring Lancelot's insistence that he'd be happy to do it himself, he gradually filled the tub with steaming water, beside which he set a chunk of soap and a small stack of washing and drying cloths.

"I'll leave you to bathe. Let me just take your clothes so I can have them cleaned."

Lancelot began to undress, frowning at the large stain on his shirt. His trousers were in even worse condition – ripped in several places, filthy and caked with dried blood. They should really be tossed out altogether, but since he'd lost his meager possessions somewhere in the forest, the clothing he wore was all he had. Perhaps if Merlin could give him directions, he might be able to search the woods later that afternoon.

The other man seemed to sense what he was thinking as walked across the room, retrieving a familiar battered leather satchel. "Does this belong to you?" he said with a grin.

Lancelot stared at the bag in amazement. "Where did you find it?"

"You must have dropped it when you rushed in to save me. I saw it lying near a bush on our walk back and thought it might be yours. Glad it was. I really wasn't looking forward to being put in the stocks or locked up as a thief if it belonged to someone else."

"Believe me, there's nothing in there worth stealing," Lancelot said with a smile. Well, almost nothing, he added silently.

Merlin nodded, then gestured at the tub. "You'll want to wash up before the water gets cold." He gathered the discarded clothing, added it to a large basket of laundry and exited the chamber, leaving Lancelot to his bath.

The water felt heavenly. He sank slowly into the tub, relishing the soothing heat as it enveloped his skin. Where he'd come from, cold lakes during summer and hurried sponge baths in winter were what he knew of bathing. This was something else entirely.

He leaned his head back against the edge, closing his eyes with a sigh of contentment. The warm water chased away the remaining soreness from his injury and melted the tension from his muscles, such blissful sensations that he could've easily stayed right where he was for hours. It was only when he remembered Merlin would be returning soon and might like to bathe as well that he set about the business of washing the dirt, blood, and grime from his skin.

As the water began to cool, he rose and toweled himself off, feeling clean and refreshed as he quickly dressed then debated on what to do next. Should he go looking for the other man or wait for him to return?

Deciding the first option would be rude, he wandered aimlessly around the chamber, inspecting the vials and potions that littered the shelves. He opened a book he found lying on the table, briefly thumbing through its pages before slamming it shut with a frown of distaste. As much as he tried to be well-informed on most subjects, he already knew everything he needed to about the treatment of boils… which was absolutely nothing.

Where is Merlin? he wondered again, pacing back and forth with a growing sense of restlessness. He didn't want to be impatient, but now that he was in Camelot, he desperately wanted to go out and do a bit of exploring. Years of waiting, hoping, dreaming and now here he was… right in the middle of city without having any idea what it actually looked like.

Eager or not, however, it wouldn't be right to take off without a word after the kindness Merlin and Gaius had shown him. But there was at least one window here in the chamber, wasn't there? Unfortunately, there was too much clutter to get close enough for a look outside, and he didn't feel comfortable moving Gaius's things.

Now that he'd had the idea, however, he wasn't willing to give up so easily.

Glancing around, he spotted the door that led to Merlin's room. He was reluctant to enter without permission, but in the end, good manners were overruled by sheer curiosity. He wouldn't be disturbing the other man's belongings, after all, only having a brief look at the city if there was a window inside that was low enough to reach.

That was how Merlin found him nearly an hour later, standing on a box in the small bedchamber as he gazed out over Camelot in rapt fascination.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" the other man said, causing Lancelot to stumble before he managed to steady himself. Having trained diligently to avoid being caught off guard, it was disconcerting to realize that he'd been mesmerized enough to forget his surroundings. Not that Merlin was any kind of threat, of course, but a knight should never allow such things to happen under any circumstances. It was far too easy to let carelessness become a habit.

He was right though – it was beautiful.

"Ever since I was a child, I've dreamed of coming here," Lancelot responded, unable to disguise the longing in his voice. "It's my life's ambition, to join the Knights of Camelot."

Merlin listened in silence and he began to feel awkward, especially when his words were met with a smile. I must sound very foolish, he thought to himself, realizing that countless men must come here every day with the same ambition. Citizens like Merlin must be used to hearing these things… silly dreams that probably came to nothing in most cases.

"I know what you're thinking," he continued with a touch of embarrassment. "I expect too much. After all, who am I? They have their pick of the best and bravest in the land…"


"Yes?" he replied cautiously.

"They're going to love you."

A thrill shot through him. Filled with barely suppressed eagerness and wild hope, he took several steps closer to his new friend. "They are?"

"I've seen you in action. You could shame the great Arthur himself!"

"I hardly think so," he said with a self-conscious laugh. Now he knew the other man couldn't possibly be serious.

He didn't think Merlin was the type of person who'd mock him… perhaps he was just trying to be kind? Prince Arthur was a legend throughout the kingdom, known far and wide for his courage, bravery, and matchless skill in battle. Perhaps some of the more bizarre tales that had reached his remote village had been exaggerated, but they couldn't all be lies, could they?

"In fact, you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to talk to him right now."

Lancelot was stunned. "You know Arthur?"

"Oh yes," Merlin replied with a cheeky grin. But by the time Lancelot was able to swallow his shock enough to start asking questions, the other man was already out the door.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: Passing Fancies

"You seem tired," Morgana commented as Gwen stifled a yawn.

"It's nothing, my lady," she replied, making an effort to appear more alert as she sat up a little straighter and resumed her sewing with more enthusiasm. "I'm sure I'll be fine once I get up and start moving. You'll need your bath prepared soon and then there's the laundry, and..."

"You were up late retrieving my draught from Gaius, weren't you? And after all, I didn't even need another dose. I slept better than I have in weeks."

"That's wonderful," Gwen said. And then wanting to alleviate any guilt the other woman might be feeling on her behalf, she added, "But it wasn't the draught that kept me awake. I just had a late night."

She could have kicked herself as Morgana's bright eyes fixed on her with avid curiosity.

It was true though. Even after she'd made her way home, undressed and crawled into bed in the chill hours just before dawn, sleep had not claimed her. She'd tossed and turned for what had seemed like hours, her mind filled with thoughts of the man named Lancelot and her curious reaction to him. She'd puzzled over it for quite some time, finally deciding it had been a fanciful impulse of the moment, nothing more.

But by the time she'd come to that conclusion, it had been time to get up again. She'd climbed out of bed with a weary sigh, resigning herself to the fact that it was going to be a very long day.

"Gwen?" Morgana inquired, bringing her back to the present.

She blinked and shook her head. "Yes, my lady? I'm sorry, did you ask me something?"

"Not yet. I was just getting to that. I'm expecting to hear a fully detailed account of a late night tryst between you and a certain dark haired suitor of yours."

Gwen's mouth dropped open, stunned. How did she know? Had Merlin said something? He must have! And yet she'd been here in Morgana's chamber since just after sunrise. Could he really have come here, passed along the information and left, all before her arrival? Would he have broken his promise to keep her secret?

No, that was something she couldn't imagine him doing, certainly not for the sake of idle gossip. Besides, he hadn't given her the feeling that he believed there was anything to gossip about in the first place.

No, that wasn't it. But then how?

Morgana's voice shook her out of her jumbled reverie. "You don't have to be embarrassed, Gwen. Really, I think it's sweet. We all need a little romance and you're well suited for each other. I just want to know how it went."

"My lady, I..." she trailed off, having absolutely no idea how to respond. Had Morgana even met Lancelot? How was that possible, when he'd only arrived yesterday evening, barely conscious and burning with fever?

"He's attractive in his own way. A little skinny and goofy for my taste, but those big blue eyes of his are quite pretty and he does have nice lips. Is he a good kisser?"

Merlin! She thinks I had some late night tryst with... Merlin?

All right, that made a lot more sense, allowing her to relax somewhat. She could only imagine what Morgana would say if she knew what had actually happened the night before, something she'd been desperately trying to avoid. If Gwen so much as glanced at a man in Morgana's line of sight, she was teased mercilessly, called a shameless hussy or any number of other things that made her blush and stutter in embarrassment.

"I wouldn't know, my lady. I've never kissed him."

That was the truth, although she could see from the look on the other woman's face that she didn't believe it. Well, she could think what she liked – Gwen might have had a small inclination toward Merlin right after they'd met, but it had never been anything she'd acted on. These days, she simply counted him as a good friend.

Surprisingly, Morgana didn't question her further. Gwen knew her too well to hope that she'd heard the last on the subject, but was grateful for the reprieve nonetheless as she left to fetch water for her bath.

She met Merlin in the hall, obviously on the same errand. Greeting him with a friendly smile, she paused when he did, accepting the inevitable. One thing about Merlin... he loved to talk. It was rare that he allowed Gwen to pass him in a corridor without stopping for at least a brief chat.

"Water for Arthur? I thought he preferred to bathe at night these days."

That had been the topic of much griping on Merlin's part over the past week or so. "Pompous ass doesn't even care that some of us don't get to eat our suppers until 10 o'clock because we're too busy dragging his filthy bathwater back and forth at all hours of the night."

Offhand comments like these were the reason servants knew everything that went on inside the palace, even where it concerned those they'd never worked for directly. There was no such thing as privacy among those in her position, something their masters and mistresses never seemed to realize.

Suddenly, Gwen wondered what the great Prince Arthur would say if he knew the laundry maids, not to mention the entire kitchen staff, knew all about the time he'd fallen into a thorn bush and had spent hours in Gaius's chamber, yowling like a scalded cat as the physician had painstakingly plucked tiny spurs from his backside.

She suppressed a giggle, just before Merlin's voice intruded on her wandering thoughts. "Not for Arthur. It's for Lancelot. He's awake and feeling much better."

"Oh!" she exclaimed, feeling flustered. "Well, I'm glad to hear it."

A brief, yet surprisingly vivid image of Lancelot lying in a tub, head thrown back and eyes closed, flashed through her mind. Stop that! she scolded herself. What on earth had gotten into her?!

"Why are you blushing?"

"N-no reason," she stammered. "What I mean is... something Morgana said a few minutes ago, that's all. And speaking of Morgana, she's not going to be happy if she doesn't have her bath soon. I should be getting back to work."

Merlin accepted that without question as he moved to let her pass. "I guess I'll see you later then. Oh... and Gwen?"

"Yes?" she replied cautiously.

"Get some rest when you can. You look exhausted."

She nodded, appreciating his concern. "I will."

The rest of the day passed with an agonizing slowness. By noon, Gwen was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open. Two o'clock found her scrubbing the same tiny section of Morgana's floor for twenty minutes straight, finding it increasingly difficult to focus on her chores. It was only the fact that she'd performed them hundreds of times in the past that helped her get anything done at all.

Around four o'clock, Morgana finally took pity on her. "Gwen, go home and get some rest. I can look after myself this evening."

"Oh, no, my lady," she protested with more energy than she'd shown in hours. "Really, I'm fine. Just a bit of midafternoon sleepiness, that's all."

"Gwen," Morgana said more firmly, with an edge of real concern in her voice. "You're exhausted. Besides, I'm expecting a visitor tonight, so I would've sent you home early anyway. Just help me dress and you can go. There's nothing here that can't be left until tomorrow."

A visitor. Gwen knew exactly what that meant, especially when combined with a desire for privacy. The guest would be male, unusually handsome, either one of two knights Morgana favored, or perhaps the dashing young lord who sometimes traveled to Camelot to compete in the jousting tournaments.

The coming would be circumspect, a proper and respectful visit to the Lady Morgana. But the departure would be something else entirely, only a shadow creeping out of her chambers in the middle of the night with a great deal of subterfuge.

And tomorrow, Gwen would don the faded blue cloak she only ever wore for this occasion, face hidden by the voluminous hood and hands concealed in thick leather gloves. Morgana would hand her two gold pieces and she'd venture to the lower town to procure a potion that "must be taken within 24 hours to prevent a little nuisance."

The stringy haired old crone had happily supplied this information the first time she'd gone on this errand, followed by a lecherous wink. After that, Gwen had asked no more questions.

But as uncomfortable as that part of it was, it never occurred to her to think badly of Morgana for her visitors. It was not her place to judge, after all, and the truth was that she envied the other woman for her confidence.

Meanwhile, Gwen always felt awkward and insecure, never quite sure how to behave around men. She'd long ago decided it was for the best that they rarely seemed to notice her, being as she'd probably just embarrass herself and scare any potential suitors away. It seemed better to avoid that particular disappointment.

Of course, it had been much easier to think like that when she hadn't known what it was to have feelings for someone.

Her opinion on the matter had changed after Merlin's arrival in Camelot. That had been nothing more than a girlhood fancy, but it had felt wonderful to look forward to seeing him more than anyone else, then to wait in breathless anticipation for every word he spoke. Of course, the most surprising part of all had been the way even the smallest touch had set her stomach aflutter.

If that was what could be expected from a passing inclination, she could only imagine what it must be like to really fall in love. Indeed, tales about dashing heroes, chivalry, and courtly love no longer made her roll her eyes as they once had. She'd sigh wistfully whenever she thought of them, wondering if she'd ever find someone who loved her with such tireless devotion.

But for the time being, the only longing she felt was for her own bed, and so with a quick farewell to Morgana, she gathered her things and walked home. Crawling beneath the blankets without bothering to undress, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, not waking until well past sunrise the following morning.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: First Code

Arthur Pendragon, Prince of Camelot... Merlin knew him well enough to speak to him on Lancelot's behalf?

Shock gave way to elation, soon replaced by uncertainty. Even if it was true, why would Arthur condescend to talk someone like him? After all, the man was royalty; surely he made his own decisions as to who he permitted to try out for the knighthood? Why would he give a stranger a chance, sight unseen, based on the word of a servant... especially one who couldn't possibly be well versed in the art of combat?

Worse, what if Merlin was punished for his impertinence in even asking for such a thing?

Lancelot should have stopped him... but then again, did he have a better plan? He'd been training for most of his life with this opportunity in mind, years of swordplay, offensive and defensive tactics, battle strategy, anything one could possibly learn about the art of combat. He'd tried to emulate everything he'd ever heard about Arthur and his knights, and could recite the Knight's Code from memory.

He'd been so focused on preparation, in fact, that he'd given little thought to what might come next once he'd arrived at his destination. He'd desperately wanted to become a knight... more specifically, a Knight of Camelot. The plan had been to hone his skills and when he felt ready, journey to the one place where he could hope to make that dream come true. The rest would fall into place.

Suddenly, he felt incredibly naive. The truth was that he knew very little about the practicalities involved in actually accomplishing his goal. He'd memorized countless tales about bravery and heroism, could talk all day about the lofty ideals he admired. He fought well and with honor, and understood how to serve and obey. Back in his village when he'd fantasized about this moment, that had seemed like enough.

But now he had to face reality. How did someone even try out for the knighthood, whether or not they were lucky enough to become one? Given the opportunity, he believed he had as much chance of proving himself worthy as anyone else did. But how did one get the chance to do that? It was the one question he'd never asked himself, and he had no idea what he was supposed to do if Merlin's idea of speaking with Arthur proved fruitless.

Eventually, his anxious musings were interrupted by the other man's return. He was smiling as he entered the chamber... that had to be a good sign, right?

"I haven't spoken with Arthur yet," he said before Lancelot had a chance to bombard him with questions. "He was on his way down to the training grounds when I found him. But you're in luck. He's going to be giving one of the recruits his final test in just a few minutes. Want to go down and see the action?"

Lancelot nodded vigorously, so eager he nearly tripped over his own feet as he followed Merlin out into the hall.

"So how do you know Arthur?" he asked as they made their way through the corridors and out into the streets.

"I happen to be his personal servant," Merlin replied. "Believe me, I know him very well."

Lancelot absorbed this, at first in silent disbelief. After a moment though, it all began to make sense. If there was one thing he believed in, it was fate. Destiny. Even as a humble peasant boy, living half a kingdom away from Camelot, he'd somehow known he'd make his way here someday. The first time he'd ever lifted a sword, he'd immediately understood what he was meant to do with his life.

When he grew weary after relentless hours of training, he frequently pushed himself to continue with twice the determination he'd felt to begin with. He'd keep going until his fingers bled, muscles ached, to the point where he was ready to drop from exhaustion… all because he knew beyond a shadow of doubt that it was his destiny he was fighting to achieve.

When something was meant to be, it just felt right. Lancelot believed this with his whole heart.

It could be no mere coincidence that the creature had appeared when it did... no accident that the person he'd rushed in to save had been servant to Prince Arthur himself. All the pieces were falling into place, as if it had all been planned for him somehow.

Nervousness was replaced by heady anticipation as they reached the training grounds and Lancelot laid eyes on him for the first time. Arthur looked splendid, golden hair glinting and silver mail shining in the early afternoon sunlight. His tabard was a bold shade of red, proudly emblazoned with the Pendragon sigil, and he had the physique of a hardened warrior. He looked exactly as Lancelot had always imagined – strong, confident, bright eyed, regal. A true commander.

"Pass this and you're a Knight of Camelot," the prince called out to the waiting recruit. "Fail, and you're no one. You face the most feared of all foes, the ultimate killing machine. You face me."

He was completely self assured, and why shouldn't he be? If even half the stories were true, Arthur was a fighter without equal. Lancelot felt another surge of excitement, realizing he was about to see those legendary skills for himself.

"Your challenge is to last through one minute of free combat."

And then his mind grew quiet, going to a place it always did whenever swordplay was involved. Nothing existed beyond the sound of steel on steel, the need to study each opponent to determine his strengths and weaknesses. He didn't have to be in combat himself to be so singularly focused. Even as an observer, he evaluated every move a participant made, imagining the perfect countermove.

"Grummond, Second Son of Wessex. Your time starts now. "

He watched as the man in the purple worked his way across the field toward Arthur, swinging his swords back and forth in a unnecessary display of bravado. Lancelot didn't want to be unkind, but the spectacle was… well, it was ridiculous. Obviously Arthur agreed, staring at the recruit with a great deal of skepticism as he approached. Merlin stifled a laugh.

It was over in seconds; Arthur neatly maneuvered beneath the man's clumsy swing, putting him on the ground with two lightning quick blows. Even though Lancelot winced in sympathy, he couldn't be surprised by the outcome. A good warrior conserved his strength until the moment of impact. He didn't waste an ounce of energy on superfluous movement, certainly not on nonsensical displays of whirling swords. Any man who thought combat had anything to do with showing off had a lot to learn.

"Well, I guess that's that," Merlin said with a grin. "I need to go help Arthur with his armor. Can you find your way back on your own?"

Lancelot opened his mouth to speak, trying to find a polite way to ask if he still intended to speak with the prince. He didn't want to be pushy, but the scene they'd just witnessed made him all the more eager for his own opportunity. He still didn't know how he'd measure up, but was sure he'd prove a far better opponent than Grummond, Second Son of Wessex.

"Don't worry, Lancelot," Merlin said, anticipating what he was about to say. "I'll talk to him."

"Thank you, Merlin. And yes, I can find my own way back. I'll see you when you return."

He would've enjoyed a walk through the streets of Camelot, exploring the city and taking in the sights. For now though, he was far too preoccupied by thoughts of Merlin's imminent conversation with Arthur to do much of anything except return to the chamber and wait.

And wait he did, as the afternoon dragged by at a snail's pace. He stared out the window at the city in an attempt to distract himself, even thumbed through a couple of books on the assumption that nothing could be more distasteful than the tome about treating boils he'd encountered earlier. Discovering just how wrong he'd been, he placed "The Physician's Guide to Fungal Infections" back on the shelf with a shudder.

He did come across a book of ancient legends that held his interest for about ten minutes, an impressive length of time under the circumstances. Dragons had always fascinated him; he'd have to remember to ask Gaius if he had anything else he might be able to read on the subject.

Eventually the door opened, causing him to knock over a chair in his haste to find out what Arthur had said. But it was only Gaius, looking somewhat startled by such an excited reception. If he thought the behavior strange, however, he made no comment; with a brief nod, he turned his attention to grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle.

Just as Lancelot was about to ask if there was some task he could perform to help pass the time, Merlin returned at long last.

"Well? Did you speak to him?"

Merlin said he had, though the tone of his voice gave nothing away.


That was met by a somber shake of his head.

Lancelot knew a brief moment of crushing disappointment, just before Merlin started to smile.

"He said he would like to meet you."

From despair to elation in a matter of seconds. Everything he'd ever hoped for and it was close, so close to becoming a reality.

"Yes!" he exclaimed, hardly able to believe it. "Thank you. Thank you!"

"Really, it was no problem." Merlin cleared his throat awkwardly. "You're not a nobleman by any chance, are you?"

"A nobleman? No!" Lancelot laughed incredulously at the idea. "Good lord, no. Why do you ask?"

"It's just that there's this..."

"The First Code of Camelot states that only those of noble blood can serve as a knight," Gaius explained, his voice soft and gentle. "Uther created the knights to protect this kingdom from those who wished to destroy it. He knew he would have to trust each of his knights with his life. So he chose them from the families that had sworn allegiance to him. Ever since that day, only the sons of noble families have served as knights."

No… this was so much worse than anything he'd felt up until this moment. Even if Arthur had refused to hear Merlin out and Lancelot had been forced to look for some other way, he'd have still felt he had a chance. Now there was none.

"But that's not fair!" Merlin protested.

"Fair or unfair, that's the way it is," Gaius said sternly, and then much more gently, "I'm sorry, Lancelot. Truly, I am."

He was beyond words, burying his head in his hands as he attempted to reconcile the devastating truth in his mind. Perhaps it would've been easier to accept if he'd been given an opportunity, only to fail due to lack of skill. At least that was something he would've had some sort of control over… disappointing, no doubt, but he could have resumed his training until he was ready to try again.

But this? Not a lack of ability, no failing in honor or loyalty, no breach of code. A lifelong dream destroyed over nothing more than an accident of birth? That seemed so wrong.

And yet Uther Pendragon was the greatest and most venerated ruler in all the five kingdoms. Why would he enforce such restrictions if they weren't necessary?

A touch of doubt entered Lancelot's mind and for the first time, he wondered if the elder Pendragon was the perfect king after all. Perhaps he was just being unfair, at least where this was concerned.

But immediately on the heels of that thought, he felt deeply ashamed. No wonder ordinary people weren't allowed to serve as knights, if such moments of disloyalty came to them so easily.

He went back and forth for quite some time, trying to make sense of the jumble of conflicted emotions in his head. In the end, he supposed it didn't matter. Fair or unfair, he'd never be a knight now... would never have a chance to become the only thing he'd ever wanted to be.

And without that, he had nothing left.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Sympathy

Afternoon melted into evening as Lancelot struggled to come to terms with his destroyed hopes. For the most part, Merlin and Gaius left him alone to brood, blessed solitude for which he was immensely grateful.

Supper was served, which was eaten in silence. His depression was obviously responsible for the somber mood of the others, adding guilt to the host of other unpleasant emotions he was already feeling. Nonetheless, he was beyond attempting any facade of cheerfulness. He remembered his manners enough to thank Gaius for the food, at least, but he couldn't recall if he'd eaten any of it once the meal was over.

And then later in Merlin's room, he finally found himself put on the spot.

"Why do you want to be a knight so much?"

He thought about dodging the question. It wasn't something that was easy to talk about to begin with, and it would be that much more difficult in light of what had happened that afternoon. Why not just say he was looking for a more purposeful life, or that he simply enjoyed a good fight? Both were true, of course. But in the end, he decided to be honest.

"When I was a boy, my village was attacked by raiders from the northern plains. They were slaughtered where they stood. My father, my mother. Everyone. I alone escaped. I vowed that day that never again would I be helpless in the face of tyranny. I made swordcraft my life. Every waking hour since that day, I've devoted to the art of combat."

"When I was ready, I set forth for Camelot." He paused as a fresh wave of disappointment washed over him. "And now, it seems my journey ends. Everything I fought for, wasted."

His hopeless gaze was met by eyes filled with compassion, giving him comfort without words. Despite everything, he'd been lucky to meet someone so kind and understanding... the first real friend he'd ever had.

"I give you my word," Merlin said quietly. "Whatever it takes, I will make this right."

Lancelot knew very well there was nothing he could do, but it was enough just to know he cared.

"Thank you, Merlin," he said with feeling. "For everything."

They settled down for the night after a debate over the sleeping arrangements, where each man insisted he'd be just fine on the floor while refusing to consider any objection from the other.

"It's your bed, Merlin. Besides, you've done enough for me already."

"Lancelot, you're the guest. I'm perfectly comfortable on the floor, really."

"I don't mind. Believe me, I've slept in far worse places."

"So have I," Merlin shot back with a contrary grin.

Eventually, they compromised by agreeing to take turns. This led to renewed insistence on both parts that tonight was their night for the floor, a matter that was only settled when Merlin produced a battered silver coin and flipped it in the air. Lancelot chose tails.

The man who ended up on the floor was out in a matter of minutes, but the other couldn't seem to fall asleep. What am I to do with myself now? he asked himself for the hundredth time as he stared up at the ceiling, but there was still no answer. Or maybe he was just reluctant to look for one, fearing that settling on an alternate plan for his life would be the ultimate show of defeat.

As impossible as it might seem, he wasn't ready to give up on his dream just yet.

Perhaps he'd stay here in Camelot. He didn't want to impose on Merlin and Gaius indefinitely, but maybe he could find some sort of work that would earn him enough to take up residence at the inn or as a boarder somewhere. He didn't have any trade skills, but he was young, strong, certainly not feebleminded. Surely there was something he could do to earn a living.

Yes, that was a solid plan. He'd learn everything he could about the city, the knights, the nobility, anything that might help him find another way to achieve his goal. If he could just be patient and continue to improve his swordcraft whenever he had the chance, there was no telling what might be possible in the future.

Maybe this wasn't a defeat after all. It could be a hero's trial like the tales of old, a temporary setback, something meant to test his strength and determination. And if that were true, he'd come out on the other side as a better man, stronger, more experienced in the ways of the world. Yes… perhaps this was just a necessary part of fulfilling the destiny he'd always dreamed of.

Feeling vastly relieved at the thought, he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

It was a bright eyed, cheerful Guinevere who greeted Merlin when she discovered him on her doorstep the following morning. A blissful night of uninterrupted sleep had done wonders for her disposition, leaving her feeling energetic and more than ready to face the day.

"Hello, Merlin," she said with a smile. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"Morning, Gwen. I was wondering if I could talk to you about something. Do you have a few minutes?"

"Yes, of course! Come on in, I've just finished making breakfast. Would you like something to eat?"

He nodded enthusiastically and followed her inside.

Silly question, she thought to herself as she served him, then fixed herself a plate and joined him at the table. Merlin was always hungry. He seemed determined to prove that now, as he attacked his fried eggs, toast, and apple slices as if it had been a week since he'd last eaten.

"I'm sorry," she said after a moment. "I know it isn't much."

"Are you kidding?" he mumbled around a mouthful of food. "Gaius has been serving nothing but porridge lately. Believe me, this is great!"

She smiled, eating more slowly as she waited for him to finish and get around to what he'd come to talk about.

"You know how Uther's rules and policies aren't always fair, right?"

"Merlin," she said, giving him a meaningful look. "Two months ago, I was in a dungeon cell waiting to be burned at the stake for something I didn't even do, thanks to our king's idea of justice. Uther wouldn't know right from wrong if it jumped up and bit him on his royal backside."

He looked surprised by her vehemence, even as he nodded in agreement. Gwen wouldn't have normally been so outspoken on the subject, but this was a private conversation in her own home and she trusted Merlin completely.

"What if someone you cared about needed your help?" he said in a rush. "What if the only thing this person had ever wanted was something they couldn't have because of one of Uther's stupid rules? A rule that was unfair and shouldn't even exist in the first place?"

"I don't understand…"

"If there was a way for you to help this person, something you could do to make sure no one ever found out, would you do it, even if you were technically breaking a rule?"

Gwen was growing increasingly concerned. "Merlin, are you in some kind of trouble?"

"Not exactly," he said, trailing off into silence as if searching for another way to explain himself.

"You know you can trust me. I'd like to help in any way I can, but I need to know what the problem is first. Please, tell me what's going on."

He hesitated, but after a moment, he took a deep breath and it all came out – Lancelot's dream of becoming a Knight of Camelot, the lifelong ambition that had brought him to the city, followed by an even more impassioned description of his skill with a sword than she heard the first night in Gaius's chamber.

"Gwen, you should've seen him. I took him down to the training grounds to watch Arthur yesterday and he was so excited. I don't know if I've ever seen someone who wanted something so badly. He's been training for this his whole life."

She thought back to the man she'd secretly tended in Gaius's chambers. After a good night's sleep, her actions didn't seem nearly as absurd as they had at the time. There was something of the way she'd been affected by Lancelot in how Merlin was speaking about him now. Perhaps she'd somehow sensed those qualities in him, too... the goodness, the enthusiasm, the hopeful dreams?

"If he's really that good, then what's stopping him?" she asked, though she had a sinking feeling as she remembered Merlin's earlier questions. "Did you speak to Arthur? Has he refused to let Lancelot try out for some reason?"

"It's not Arthur. Not exactly. He told me I could bring Lancelot to meet him at the training grounds tomorrow morning. But that's only because he believes Lancelot is a noble. You see, only nobles can become knights. Uther's rule, otherwise known as the First Code of Camelot."

"Not surprising. Without noble blood, the rest of us might as well be dirt under Uther's feet. But poor Lancelot didn't know about the code? Well, I guess that's not surprising if he came from some distant village as you said."

She felt a rush of sympathy, imagining a hopeful young boy training for years to become a knight, only to arrive in Camelot to find out he didn't even have a chance. Curse Uther and his ridiculous policies.

"I know," Merlin said softly. "You should have seen him last night after Gaius told him. He was so upset he didn't even speak for hours. I wanted to help, but I didn't know what to say."

Gwen's thoughts went back to something else he'd told her. "You mentioned that Arthur believes Lancelot is a noble. Why does he think so?"

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I may have sort of... told him he was."

"Merlin! When Arthur meets him, he's going to know you were lying. Or worse, he's going to think Lancelot lied to you both."

"I know, Gwen. That's what I came to talk to you about. You see, to try out for the knights, every recruit must present his Seal of Nobility…"

"That makes it worse! What do you plan to do when Lancelot goes to meet Arthur and doesn't have one?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you if you'll let me finish. I know of somewhere the future Sir Lancelot could find a perfectly legitimate looking seal to present in the morning. That's what I came to ask you... if you were in my place, would you help him?"

Sir Lancelot, she mused, momentarily distracted. It had a nice sound, as if his name had been designed for the title. But while there was no question in her mind that he deserved a chance, she couldn't help but worry.

"Merlin, I agree that Uther's policy is wrong. I hate that Lancelot has to suffer for it and wish there was another way…"

"But there is, Gwen! That's what I'm trying to tell you."

"A forgery? Where will you get such a thing? And what if you're caught? You'd be risking not only your freedom, but your life, and Lancelot's, too! Have you considered that? "

"Of course I have. Despite what people think, I'm not a fool. I wouldn't be considering this if I didn't know when I was doing. The only thing I'm trying to ask you is that if you had a safe way to help someone you cared about in this situation, would you do it?"

If she were honest with herself, she had to admit that from everything she knew about Lancelot, it would be terribly unjust not to give him a fighting chance, even if that involved a risky deception. Besides, any further warnings were likely to fall on deaf ears anyway.

"Without hesitation," she said softly.

"I knew you'd say that."

She rolled her eyes at him, then asked, "How does Lancelot feel about this idea? He's agreed to it?"

Merlin hesitated. "Well, no. He doesn't know about it yet. But I promised to help him and that's exactly what I intend to do."

"He may not agree to it, you know. If he's as honorable as you say he is, he might not be willing to lie, even if that lie comes with the best of intentions. Or he may just decide that the risk is too great."

"Believe me, Gwen. He'll do it."

Rising from the table, she began to clear the long forgotten breakfast dishes. She'd completely lost track of time during their conversation and Morgana was sure to be expecting her soon. Merlin apologized for taking up so much of her morning, heading for the door, then pausing with one hand on the knob.

"I was wondering if you could do me a favor? Well, not for me. For Lancelot."

What can I possibly do for him? she wondered to herself as she motioned for Merlin to continue.

"Well, he's going to need clothes… also weapons and armor. If this is going to work, he can't exactly meet Arthur dressed as a peasant. Do you think you could help? I'll find a way to pay you back."

She laughed. "I guess it's lucky for you both that I'm a seamstress and the daughter of a blacksmith. I should be back home by late afternoon. You can bring him by for me to take measurements then... if he agrees to your plan, that is. I'm sure I can have whatever he needs finished by tomorrow morning."

"Thank you, Gwen!" he said happily, surprising her with a hug. "You're the best."

She returned the embrace, swatting at him playfully. "Off with you now... unless you'd like to explain to Morgana why I'm an hour late to work this morning."

"No, I'd rather not. See you this afternoon!"

After he left, she gathered her things and made her way to the palace. She wasn't late after all; Morgana was just waking up as she arrived, greeting her happily with a huge smile on her lovely face. 

Seems I'm not the only one who had a pleasant evening, she thought to herself in amusement. 

Returning the smile with a grin of her own, she hurried around gathering up discarded clothing, humming to herself as she did so. Between Morgana's blissful mood and her own anticipation about finally getting to meet the mysterious Lancelot, she couldn't wait to see what the day would bring.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: Deception

Merlin was nowhere to be found when Lancelot woke the next morning. Gaius was there, however, mixing up potions in the outer chamber, the air warm and fragrant with the scent of brewing herbs.

"Ah, good morning, Lancelot!" the physician greeted him cheerfully. "You're looking better. Did you sleep well?"

"I did, thank you," he replied. "I'm sorry I got up so late though. I must have missed Merlin."

"Yes, he was out of here early this morning. Surprisingly early, in fact. He didn't even wait around for breakfast. Speaking of food, are you hungry?"

To his surprise, Lancelot realized he was famished. He nodded, sitting down at the table as Gaius served him a meal that certainly wasn't porridge: ham, fresh baked bread, soft white cheese, and a mug of spiced cider to wash it down. He ate ravenously, not stopping until the plate was empty.

Gaius watched him, smiling. "I'm glad to see you have your appetite back. You barely touched your supper last night."

"I'm truly sorry. I..."

"You had a difficult day. There's no need to apologize. Besides, Merlin was happy to finish your leftovers."

"Do you know how long he'll be gone?" Lancelot asked. He didn't want to sit here alone with his thoughts all day. If Merlin was going to be gone for a while, he wanted to go out and explore the city of Camelot. It was time to start learning more about this place, especially if he intended on staying indefinitely.

"I believe he said he was going to visit Gwen this morning," Gaius mused, half to himself. "After that, he'll probably be serving Arthur for most of the afternoon."

Serving the man I never will, Lancelot thought dismally. No, he'd done enough moping. Being miserable wasn't going to help matters.

Instead, he chose to focus on the other part of the statement. "Gwen?"

"Yes, maid to the Lady Morgana. Sweet girl. She and Merlin are very close."

Merlin had a sweetheart... that was nice. He had little experience with such things himself beyond perhaps a stolen kiss on nights where too much ale had made him bolder than usual. Beyond that, he'd been so focused on his training that the girls had usually left him alone, preferring the company of boys who were willing to sneak off to the woods for a bit of clumsy groping at any given time.

That had suited him just fine. Not that he didn't crave those things sometimes, it had just seemed pointless to seek them out back in the village. His life and future were in Camelot, after all. He'd always dreamed he'd find love here, too, after he'd become a knight and had something to offer a woman. Honor, protection, devotion, chivalry. That was what love was to him.

Gaius cleared his throat, shaking him from his reverie. "I must be off to see to my patients. Would you mind doing me a favor this afternoon?"

"Of course. Anything."

"I thought you might go down to the lower town and purchase some apples for me. Merlin really likes apple tarts and I thought it would be a nice treat for him since he missed out on breakfast. There are plenty of fruit sellers, I imagine they shouldn't be too hard to find. About ten should do the trick. Can you do that?"

"Yes, I'd be glad to."

Lancelot suddenly wondered if Gaius really needed the apples, or if this was just his way of finding something for him to do to keep his mind off of his recent disappointment. Either way, it was an excuse to explore the city, something he was very much looking forward to. As soon as the door closed, he dressed and pulled on his boots, then made his way through the palace corridors and out into the street.

The sun was shining brightly, the mild breeze fragrant with the scent of roasting meat, baking bread, along with other smells that were not as easy to identify, but pleasant nonetheless. Camelot's streets were bustling with activity: sellers advertising their wares, an old man singing a bawdy song as he winked at a group of young serving girls, sending them into a fit of giggles. Children laughed and played, the sounds of a dozen different craftsmen filling the air with the sharp ringing of blacksmith hammers and other instruments of trade...

Fascinated, Lancelot forgot all about his inner conflict. He stopped to admire a fine collection of pearl handled daggers at a seller's booth, marveling over the extraordinary craftsmanship. Passing a fruit merchant, he stopped to buy apples for Gaius, smiling in thanks as the young girl took his coin and handed him the sack of fruit with a very noticeable blush staining her cheeks.

Later, he opened it to discover she'd included several extra apples and a fine, ripe pear.

Hearing the sweetly familiar sound of steel on steel in the distance, he briefly considered heading over to the training grounds to watch the action. No, he decided. Too soon. Avoiding any obvious reminders of his failed hopes seemed to be working for the time being. He wasn't ready to reopen the wound just yet.

Instead, he made his way back to Gaius's chamber, proud that he only lost his way twice. He was hoping Merlin would be there when he arrived; despite the ups and downs over the past couple days, he genuinely enjoyed the other man's company. Losing his family so young, then spending so much time on training, he hadn't known what it was like to have friends before coming to Camelot. It felt nice. Really nice.

No one was around, however, so he busied himself with practical matters – washing the breakfast dishes, dusting and straightening a few things around the chamber, then polishing his boots. The door finally opened as he was peeling the apples he'd bought for supper; he glanced up to see Merlin waving a piece of rolled parchment around, blue eyes bright with excitement.

"What's that?"

"This is your seal of nobility."

What? Is this some sort of joke? If so, it wasn't funny.

"I don't understand," he said out loud.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Merlin announced proudly, unrolling the parchment with a flourish. "I give you Lancelot, Fifth Son of Lord Eldred of Northumbria."

Surely he didn't mean...

"No, Merlin," Lancelot said emphatically. "No."

The only thing stopping you from becoming a knight is a piece of paper, a tiny voice inside him whispered. A piece of paper just like that one. With effort, he silenced the thought.

"Oh, right," Merlin said skeptically, as he turned away and rolled up the parchment. "So you don't want to be a knight then."

"Of course I do!" he nearly shouted, the disappointment he'd been suppressing all day finally rising to the surface. He wasn't angry at Merlin. He was frustrated at the entire situation. His friend had been right about one thing... it wasn't fair. He knew that now. But fair or unfair, rules were rules. Unless... he stopped himself short.

"Damn the rules! The rules are wrong!" Merlin suddenly burst out, almost as if he was reading his mind.

"But it's a lie. It's against everything the knights stand for."

"You have as much right to be a knight as any man. I know it."

"But the rules, Merlin," he tried one last time, feeling his resolve weaken.

"We're not breaking the rules," Merlin said, sounding more convincing by the second. "We're bending them, that's all. Just to get your foot in the door. After that you'll be judged on your merits alone. And if you succeed, if they make you a knight, it'll be because you earned it, noble or not. I can't change the way things are done around here, but you can... if you let me help you."

Lancelot had no further objections to offer. Maybe a lie wasn't such a bad thing if it had a noble purpose? After all, if he became a knight, it would be based on his skill and physical prowess, would it not? Would he be any less loyal, any less honorable, any less willing to sacrifice his life for Camelot if need be, just because he wasn't a noble? Of course not.

He said nothing, only sighed in resignation and nodded. Merlin broke into a huge grin.

"Right. I should probably tell you that you're meeting Arthur at the training grounds tomorrow morning."

"You already made arrangements with Arthur, not knowing if I'd agree? How am I supposed to convince him that I'm a noble? I don't even have a sword, Merlin. Mine shattered when I attacked the creature, remember? I don't have the right clothes, or…" He sat down with a sigh. "Oh, this is never going to work."

Merlin gave him an exasperated look. "Yes, but that's not all I did. I also have a friend who knows all about you and is willing to help with weapons, clothing, and armor. Believe me, I've thought this all through. Now come on. She's expecting us."

He really is amazing, Lancelot thought as he followed the other man out into the halls. He sees a problem, and no matter how hopeless it may seem, he's already thinking of a dozen different solutions. Arthur was very lucky to have such a smart, resourceful servant at his disposal.

They made their way to the lower town, walking almost leisurely as Merlin chattered about nothing in particular. The streets were much more familiar this time; Lancelot noticed a few of the sellers nod at them in greeting, seeming to recognize them both. He'd only been here two days and Camelot was already beginning to feel more like home than anywhere he'd ever known.

Soon, they reached a small house that looked very similar to countless others they'd passed. Merlin raised his hand to knock, but before he had the chance, the door opened.

Without warning, Lancelot found himself staring down into one of the loveliest faces he'd ever seen.

Stare was exactly what he did. He was unable to speak or even move, as Merlin and the girl exchanged greetings. He didn't hear what they said, didn't even catch her name. All he could do was stare.

She was beautiful – large, long lashed dark eyes, soft black curls, tawny skin. It wasn't just her features that were so captivating though. There was something about her face. Something open, kind, gentle... mesmerizing. He felt like he'd had the wind knocked out of him.

"... and this is Lancelot," he heard Merlin say as if from a great distance, and she turned her attention on him.

She said nothing for an endless time, just gazed up at him with those fascinating eyes of hers. For a moment, he could almost believe she was rendered as defenseless by his presence as he was by hers. But then she took a deep breath and gave him a friendly smile. 

Good lord, she had a beautiful mouth.

"Hello, Lancelot," she said softly.

Speak! he prodded himself frantically. Say something!

"H-hello, my lady," he managed to stutter out, giving an awkward bow. I must seem like a simpleminded fool.

If she agreed with that sentiment, however, it certainly didn't show on her face. She just gave him another smile, more of a reassuring one this time, which made him feel a little more at ease. Merlin, momentarily forgotten, cleared his throat rather pointedly.

"Come on in," she said hastily. "I need to get these measurements done if I'm to have everything finished by morning."

Lancelot tried to ignore Merlin's curious stare as they followed her inside.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Infatuation

Gwen could feel Lancelot's eyes following her around the room as she searched for her measuring tape. Or at least, that was what she was pretending to be doing, needing to collect her thoughts before facing him again.

Throughout the afternoon, she'd grown increasingly nervous about the idea of actually meeting him. Still feeling self-conscious about their first encounter, she'd worried that although he'd been deeply asleep at the time, he'd somehow be able to see some evidence of it on her face. It was ridiculous, she knew, but she couldn't help it.

Even when she'd finally been able to reassure herself that it was silly to be concerned over that, she'd remained convinced that she'd embarrass herself in some other way.

I'll be clumsy and awkward or say the wrong thing like I always do, she'd thought dismally. And then he'd give her that look she'd seen a dozen times before. He'd look at her with kindness or pity and then she'd know he'd never see her as anything more than a sweet person, maybe even a friend if she were lucky.

She'd thought she'd grown used to it by now. For some reason though, imagining that happening with Lancelot had been unbearable.

You don't know anything about him, except that he was kind to Merlin and wants to be a knight, she'd reminded herself sternly. You've never even seen him awake, Gwen. You've never talked to him, never heard him speak... why should it matter what he thinks of you?

By the time Merlin and Lancelot had arrived, she'd been watching for them for half an hour. She'd imagined a dozen possible introductions by then, most of which had involved her saying something utterly ridiculous and humiliating herself.

When the moment had come, however, it had been unlike anything she could've ever expected.

She had looked up into Lancelot's eyes, so much more captivating than any of the possibilities she'd considered. They were a deep shade of brown – soft, gentle, honest eyes, fringed with thick lashes. Beautiful, but that's not what had struck her dumb, leaving her unable to speak for what had seemed an endless time.

It had been the look in those eyes. She knew that look. It was one she'd seen directed at Morgana many times, though never at herself. Lancelot had gazed at her as if he were mesmerized, like she was the only person in the world.

Somehow she'd found her voice, surprised to discover no trace of the stutter that normally affected her around men she didn't know.

Unfortunately, Lancelot hadn't been so lucky; his voice had caught in his throat as he'd tried to respond. He'd seemed, shy, embarrassed, completely unsure as to what to say or do. Having felt that way countless times herself, she'd felt a rush of sympathy, doing her best to put him at ease with an understanding smile.

He'd felt that way over her, she realized again, feeling slightly giddy. He'd been nervous to the point of being tongue-tied over the way her presence had affected him. It would've been impossible to believe if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes.

The most surprising part was the way it had made her feel... confident and beautiful, something she never felt around men. For the first time, she hadn't been worried about seeming awkward herself. She'd only been focused on trying to put him at ease.

Even more amazing was the realization that she still felt that way.

"Found it!" she called in mock triumph, pulling the measuring tape from its usual spot.

Lancelot tried not to fidget as the lovely girl knelt at his feet, taking measurements of his lower half. To his embarrassment, his body had reacted the moment she'd touched him, and he was terrified she'd recognize what seemed like a very obvious bulge in his trousers. He cringed as she wrapped her measuring tape around his upper thigh, dangerously close to the area that had him so concerned.

What will she think of me if she notices? he wondered anxiously. I'll seem like a complete lecher. She'll probably order me out of her house!

He tried to speak and provide some sort of distraction, finding it necessary to pause and clear his throat as he stumbled over the first word. "Th... this is very kind of you, er..."

"Gwen," she said, flashing him a brilliant smile as she rose to measure him from wrist to shoulder.

"Gwen," he repeated.

"Short for Guinevere."

"Ah. Then thank you... Guinevere." The name definitely suited her – elegant and beautiful.

"Don't thank me," she said brightly as she moved around to measure the breadth of his shoulders. "Thank Merlin."

Lancelot had completely forgotten anyone else was in the room until Gwen mentioned his name, feeling a little guilty as he shot his friend a look of gratitude. Merlin waved away the praise with a self-conscious smile.

"Sorry, can you raise your arms?" she said, and the rest of the world disappeared all over again as he did as she asked, feeling her arms wrap around him from behind. In truth, she was barely touching him. It was not the first time he'd had his measurements taken and what she was doing wasn't any different than the elderly seamstress back in the village had done.

And yet it was another thing entirely. Her fingers, her touch, were softer and more gentle. He could feel her warmth against his back, catch the scent of her hair as she moved around him. She smelled of lavender and sunshine, sweet and utterly intoxicating. Everything about her aroused his senses in a way that nothing else had ever done before.

"I think it's great that Merlin's gotten you this chance," she told him, wrapping the measuring tape around his neck. "We need men like you."

"You do?"

Gwen paused for a heartbeat, gazing up at him with those impossibly beautiful eyes of hers. And then seeming flustered, she gave herself a shake. "Well, not me personally, but you know... Camelot. Camelot needs knights."

Of course. He shook his head in embarrassment, hoping he hadn't made her feel too uncomfortable. That was the last thing he would've wanted and not only because he felt so drawn to her. She was being more than kind; he'd have wanted to make her feel at ease regardless.

"... not just Arthur and his kind, but ordinary people like you and me."

She smiled up at him as she finished and suddenly, he couldn't help but grin back. "Well, I'm not a knight yet, my lady."

"And I'm not a lady," she replied with a blush and a giggle that left him giddy.

"Sorry, my..." Addressing her that way felt natural, something that came to him without conscious thought. He wanted to say something else, but then his mind went blank… there was a moment of flustered panic just before she rescued him.

"Okay, we're done," she said, as if there had been no awkward silence at all. "I should have these ready in no time. Nice to meet you, Lancelot."

She extended a hand to shake his, but on impulse, he lifted her fingers to kiss them instead.

When he raised his eyes to her face again, he knew it had been the right thing to do. There was something vulnerable in her expression, leaving him with the feeling that even though she'd managed to hide it better than he had, the attraction between them was definitely mutual. 

He found it nearly impossible to take his eyes off her, even when Merlin clapped him lightly on the back, letting him know it was time to leave. Finally turning away with a great deal of reluctance, he was already missing her face the moment he shut the door behind him.

"She seems lovely," he commented as they were making their way back to Gaius's chamber. "Guinevere."

Of course, Merlin would know exactly who he was talking about either way, but it was nice to have an excuse to say her name again.

"Oh yeah, she is. And the best seamstress in Camelot, I promise."

And then as if from out of nowhere, he remembered Gaius mentioning Merlin's visit to Gwen that morning, remarking that the two of them were close. He shouldn't be allowing himself to feel the things he was feeling if her heart belonged to someone else… especially if that person was a friend.

"Are you two…?"

Thankfully, Merlin laughed at the suggestion. "No, no. Just friends."

That prompted a huge sigh of relief, which he did his best to disguise as a yawn. Even though he barely knew Gwen, might very well be getting ahead of himself, he'd never felt such a strong attraction to anyone in his life. He hated the idea of having to stifle those feelings, especially if they might be reciprocated.

Merlin gave him a sideways glance. "Are you trying to say you might like her?"

"Well, of course I like her. She seems like a nice person. I really appreciate her help… and yours, of course."

"You know what I mean."

He shrugged, pretending not to notice Merlin's knowing grin.

It was going to be another sleepless night, Gwen realized as she arranged bolts of cloth and sewing materials on the table. Lancelot would need a tabard, of course. Having seen his clothing, she decided he'd also need new trousers and shirt if he was going to give the overall appearance of nobility. His boots weren't so bad, newly polished and of decent quality. But everything else was too simple to be convincing.

Not that she thought there was anything wrong with the way he looked, of course. It was just that she'd been around nobles her whole life and knew how particular they could be about such things.

She'd been focused on practical matters since the men had left, gathering materials together, preparing a light supper, then carrying a plate of food over to her father, who'd be working late at his forge as he usually did. Now that everything was settled, however, and she'd sat down to sew the blue and red badge of the house of Northumbria, her mind began to wander.

Lancelot is attracted to me. There was no denying it, he'd made it blatantly obvious in every possible way. She still felt giddy, remembering how he'd gazed at her as if she were some ravishing beauty, listening to every word she'd spoken as if it were of paramount importance.

It was amazing to realize that plain, shy little Guinevere could have such an effect on someone… especially someone like him.

From time to time, she'd stop what she was doing to rub the place where his lips had touched the back of her hand, imagining it all over again. His kiss had been firm but gentle, warm breath tickling her skin and sending a pleasant shiver down her spine. It had been something so small, yet she was still feeling it hours later.

She couldn't make excuses for what had happened in Gaius's chamber anymore. Now that she'd truly met Lancelot, there was no denying she was attracted to him... and had been right from the beginning.

In the bright light of day, he was even more handsome than she'd imagined when she'd seen him sleeping in a dimly lit room, sweating and pallid in the aftermath of fever. He was taller than she'd assumed, a full head above herself. Slender, yet strong and broad shouldered, she'd been able to feel the hard muscles under her fingertips as she'd taken his measurements.

Perhaps Merlin was right about him being such a good fighter. He certainly had the kind of body that could only come from long hours of training. And training, of course, meant skill.

I suppose we'll find out soon enough, she mused to herself.

As the night deepened, she wondered if he was asleep, hoping nerves weren't keeping him awake and that Arthur wouldn't intimidate him too much in the morning. She hoped the new clothing would help him feel more confident, serving as a reminder that he deserved this opportunity as much as any other man.

The tabard needed to be orange with the red and blue patch of Northumbria stitched to the front. Not colors she might have chosen herself, but necessary to give the appearance of authenticity. Meanwhile, the trousers would have to be black; any other color would clash with the already dubious combination.

But the shirt wouldn't even be visible under tabard and mail, giving Gwen her choice of colors. White, she decided. Yes, white would complement Lancelot's dark coloring, emphasizing his deeply tanned skin and rich brown hair and eyes.

As she measured and cut the fabric, she was distracted by thoughts of his appearance, picturing his face again in her mind. She lost all concentration as she remembered his eyes, gazing down at her with a gentle intensity that had taken her breath away. And that led to musings upon his lips, of course, surprisingly soft when they'd touched her skin. His smile, the way it had lit up his face and made her feel as if...

"Ouch!" she cried aloud, her daydreams rudely disrupted by a sharp stab of pain and the sight of blood welling from her finger. Scolding herself for her carelessness, she bandaged the cut with a discarded strip of fabric, resolving to remain focused on her sewing for the rest of the evening.

Easier said than done, she thought to herself with a resigned sigh.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: Preparation

Lancelot barely slept that night. His mind was too preoccupied with thoughts of Gwen, and as the evening wore on, increasing nervousness over his meeting with Arthur.

What will I say? he wondered anxiously. What if I shame myself somehow? What if my words or actions make it obvious that I'm not a noble? I've never even been around any nobles! I don't know how to behave like one.

All the while, Merlin slept peacefully, oblivious to his inner turmoil. Lancelot was glad for it.

But I have to go through with it now, he told himself firmly. This is my one chance, and besides, it isn't only about me anymore.

Both Merlin and Gwen were doing everything in their power to help him realize his long desired ambition. It was something he wasn't quite sure he deserved, but that didn't make him any less indebted to them both. More than that, he felt incredibly humbled to have two such amazing people willing to do so much on his behalf, determined to make them proud rather than be any cause for disappointment.

Even in the face of that resolve, however, he still found it impossible to sleep. He quietly paced the room, wishing there was a sword or some other blade nearby that he could sharpen, an activity he always found soothing.

Opening the window, he gazed out over Camelot for a while, temporarily calmed by the peacefulness of the slumbering city. It was beautiful by daylight, full of bright sunshine and bustling activity. But bathed in soft moonlight, fast asleep beneath a blanket of stars, it held a special loveliness.

The thought of beautiful things inevitably brought him back to Gwen, wondering what she might be doing at that moment. It had to be well after midnight, so she was probably sleeping along with the rest of the world.

She must be beautiful when she sleeps, he mused to himself. Her face would be soft and relaxed, tousled curls tumbling in disarray across the pillow. Perhaps her lips would be slightly parted and she'd let out a gentle sigh from time to time, caught in the throes of some pleasant dream.

It was a lovely image, one that completely distracted him from his worries until he noticed the sky was beginning to lighten just outside the window. Is it dawn already? I haven't slept at all!

He panicked over that for a moment, then reminded himself that he'd fought very well in the past without any rest. At this point, it was probably better to stay awake than risk the grogginess that would come from trying to sleep just a little. He only had an hour at best before Merlin would be awake and they'd be on their way to meet Arthur.

With that thought, he stripped down and washed up, using the rough rag and bucket of cold water he found in the corner of the chamber. Naked and shivering, he couldn't help longing for a nice hot bath like the one he'd had a couple days before. He'd never cared much for luxuries, but that was an exception he could easily get used to.

If he passed his test and became a knight, there would be many more hot baths in his future. He'd carry the steaming buckets back and forth himself every evening, just for the lovely sensation of submerging himself in hot water, feeling it melt the tension from his sore muscles after a hard day's training.

If... so much was riding on that tiny word. His entire future could be summed up in two letters. If he managed to convince Arthur he was indeed a noble. If he possessed the skill to pass whatever tests might be required of him. If Arthur deemed him sufficiently worthy to become a Knight of Camelot. His whole life, everything he'd ever wanted, all a question of if.

Throughout all his years of training, Lancelot had thought he'd understood what it would mean to become a knight. But now he knew the possibilities went far beyond anything he'd ever imagined for himself. It could mean a permanent home in the city he already loved with his whole heart, along with friends like Merlin, people he genuinely cared about. And it could mean a future with someone like Gwen, the chance to fall in love... perhaps even marriage and a family of his own someday. If he became a knight, so many paths would be open to him. So many more than he'd realized until that moment.


He'd just finished dressing and was pulling on his boots when Merlin woke up. Gaius was already gone for the day, it seemed, but he'd left two plates of fresh bread, soft cheese, and apple slices on the table for their breakfast. They ate quickly and in relative silence, one distracted and anxious, the other still groggy.

Soon enough, they were on their way.

Gwen was jarred awake by loud, urgent pounding on her front door. Startled, she raised her head in confusion. What...?

The long night came back to her then... sewing more and more frantically as dawn had approached, increasingly worried that she wouldn't be finished in time. She remembered putting the last few stitches in the tabard just as pale light had begun to spill through the window, exhausted yet triumphant that she'd managed to accomplish everything she'd set out to do.

Then she had a more hazy memory of laying her head on her arms. Just for a moment, she'd told herself. Only long enough to rest her eyes a little, which had been sore and dry from the long night of straining to see the tiny stitches in the dim candlelight. Obviously, she'd fallen asleep right then and there.

That must be Merlin and Lancelot, she realized as her mind cleared and brought her back to the present. Spurred into action, she did her best to smooth her hair as she opened the door, greeting them both with a sleepy smile.

"I-I'm sorry," she said a little awkwardly. "Have you been knocking long?"

"Not long," Merlin said with a grin. "Sorry we had to wake you, Gwen. Those scissors must have made for a comfortable pillow."

Raising a hand to her face, she blushed as she felt the imprint on her cheek. "I was sewing all night and ended up falling asleep at the table."

She snuck a glance at Lancelot, half expecting to see some reaction to her awkwardness in his eyes. Instead, there was only the soft, mesmerized look he'd given her the day before, along with a tremendous amount of guilt. Just she was about to reassure him he had nothing to feel bad about, however, Merlin's voice intruded on her thoughts.

"I need to go help Arthur dress... lucky he hasn't put me in the stocks for being off duty so much these past few days. Gwen, can you help Lancelot with his clothes and armor, then bring him to the training grounds?"

"Yes, of course," she said automatically.

As soon as Merlin left, she showed Lancelot inside, trying not to think about the fact that she was now alone with him. If she did, she'd start feeling nervous and would probably say something silly and embarrass them both. Besides, there were far more important things to worry about at the moment.

He watched her quietly as she straightened the mess on the table, opening his mouth and then closing it again with an almost imperceptible shake of his head.

"Here you are," she announced, handing him what he needed with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "Put these on. You can change in, um... in there."

Mumbling his thanks, he accepted the clothing, studying the shirt with what appeared to be an approving look as he ducked behind the curtain. The bright morning sunshine illuminated the room, tracing a sharp outline of his silhouette as he lifted his arms above his head and removed his shirt. She tried not to stare, but couldn't help admiring the slender, yet powerful lines of his body.

"These are very fine clothes, my lady," he said, bringing her back to her senses somewhat. "Truly, I wasn't expecting all of this. You've been very kind."

"It's nothing, really," she assured him, smiling at the praise. "I'm glad to help. Does everything fit?"

He stepped out from behind the curtain. "See for yourself, my... I mean, Gwen."

"You may call me "my lady" if you wish," she said as she turned to face him, finding him standing much closer than she'd expected. She felt a little breathless as she gazed up into his eyes. "I rather like it."

It would've been easy to stand there all morning, just marveling over the soft, admiring way he was looking down at her. Instead, she forced herself to step backward to have a better view of her handiwork.

Yes, she'd been right... white was a great choice for his coloring. He was so handsome in the shirt and trousers, both of which fit him perfectly, that it seemed a shame to cover them up with tabard and mail. Unfortunately, there was little choice in the matter and so she reached under the bed, pulling out the sword and armor she'd chosen for him the evening before.

"Looks wonderful so far," she said with a smile, handing him the mail shirt. "Now this."

Lancelot struggled with the mail, visibly embarrassed as he wrestled with the cowl. It was obvious that he'd never worn anything like it before, which wasn't a surprise. Crafting any sort of armor was expensive; it wasn't something the average commoner had access to.

"Here, let me..." she said gently, making a few practiced adjustments until everything lay flat and smooth before helping him into his tabard.

"Thank you, my lady."

"You're welcome," she said brightly. "Now all that's left is your sword, of course."

With a sudden flash of uncertainty, she retrieved the weapon she'd chosen for him. She knew a good bit about weaponry, of course, being a blacksmith's daughter, but men varied quite a lot in their preferences. What if this one didn't suit him?

But then her worry faded as he took it from her hands, testing grip and balance with an expression of awe. "This is the finest sword I've ever seen," he said softly, far too sincere for her to doubt him.

She smiled proudly. "My father made it."

"He's a talented man. But… well, are you sure it will be all right for me to use this? It must be worth..."

"It won't be missed."

Following that, he put on his belt and gloves before sliding the sword into its scabbard. Striding away a few paces, he turned and looked at her anxiously, studying her eyes for a reaction. "Well?"

At first, all she could do was stare. She'd seen many nobles in her life and yet somehow, not a single one of them had ever looked half as noble as simple, humble Lancelot did in mail and borrowed insignia, gloved hand resting nervously on the pommel of her father's sword.

This was how those legendary knights in tales of old must have appeared, the dashing warriors and romantic heroes from ancient legends. She'd never been able to imagine any of them looking like the nobles she'd known, arrogant and pampered with privilege and excess. No, they would've been like Lancelot; – simple and good, eyes shining with hope and courage.

Of course, those eyes were filled with uncertainty as she continued to gape at him without saying a word. She gave herself a shake, then told him the only thing that seemed to make sense in that moment.

"You're perfect."

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: Arthur

Lancelot walked beside Gwen, listening attentively as she kept up a steady stream of chatter. He nodded and smiled down at her as she talked, realizing she was doing it for his benefit and appreciating her efforts. Not only did she remove any pressure for him to speak, she was providing a distraction to help him keep his mind off his nervousness.

She shared her home with her father, she said, a blacksmith named Tom, and had lost her mother when she was small. After speaking of her childhood a bit, she told him a little about her work with the Lady Morgana and how much she liked it.

Soon enough, however, they arrived at the training grounds, meeting up with an enthusiastic Merlin on the sidelines. Arthur was leading a group of knights through an exercise as the pair of supporters positioned themselves on either side of Lancelot, trying to reassure him with various encouragements.

"Don't let Arthur intimidate you," Gwen told him. "He likes to throw his authority around, but really, he's just an overgrown boy. Don't take him too seriously."

Merlin snorted in agreement. "You should hear some of the things he says to me. Threatens me ten times a day with the most awful things you can imagine and never follows through on any of them. Besides, I've seen you go up against a winged monster, Lancelot. Surely Arthur can't be more frightening than that. "

He wanted to take their words to heart, to see Arthur as more human and less intimidating. But he couldn't forget that his entire future depended on his ability to make a good impression on this man, to prove himself a worthy opponent. In truth, nothing anyone could have said in that moment would've lessened his anxiety.

"Well, you certainly look the part," Merlin said cheerfully, making a couple small adjustments to his clothing.

"Doesn't he just?" Gwen agreed. She'd done a beautiful job on his clothing, of course, even if his costume only made him feel more awkward somehow. Necessary or not, such fine clothes seemed to draw attention to how humble he really was rather than accomplishing the opposite.

"I don't feel it," he muttered, so nervous he could barely look at either of them.

Please let me get through this. Don't let this be a wasted effort. Let me prove myself worthy.

And then his anxious thoughts were interrupted as Arthur finished his exercise and dismissed the men.

"Here's your chance," Merlin said with an encouraging pat on his shoulder. "Go for it."

Despite his fears, he stepped forward without hesitation.

"Yes?" Arthur said, giving him a quizzical look.

"Lancelot, Fifth Son of Lord Eldred of Northumbria," he replied with a stiff nod. At least I didn't stutter, he thought to himself, ready to claim any small victory that might boost his flagging confidence.

"Lance...a lot? My servant mentioned you. Got your seal?"

"Sire," he said, giving the prince a respectful bow as he held out the roll of parchment.

The next thing he knew, he was on his backside on the ground, stunned by a hard blow to the face.

"Sluggish reactions," Arthur said, and too late, Lancelot realized it had been a test. "On a battlefield you'd be dead by now. Come back when you're ready."

That can't be it. No. Lancelot flashed back to his years of training, remembered pushing himself beyond exhaustion nearly every day just to get to this moment. He thought of Merlin going to great lengths to obtain the Seal of Nobility, just to give him this chance. And he pictured Gwen sewing tirelessly throughout the night, helping him dress this morning, and then looking at him with so much faith in her eyes.

With that, he rose to his feet and placed his hand on his sword. No, he wasn't willing to give up so easily.

"I'm ready now, sire," he announced boldly.

Just for a moment, he could have sworn he saw something like respect in the other man's eyes.

"You are, are you? Fine. You can start by cleaning out the stables."

Or maybe not. Did that mean he'd blown his chance? Or was this another test? It must be a test... Merlin was grinning and giving him an enthusiastic thumbs up.

"I can't say I envy you, Lancelot," he said a moment later, letting out a sympathetic laugh. "Can't tell you how many times I've had to muck out Arthur's horses. Don't worry though, that's just his way. I bet he wants to make you nice and humble before he tests your skill. Any advantage he can get, you know."

Lancelot let out a deep breath, incredibly relieved that the meeting was over, especially since it hadn't been anywhere near as bad as he'd feared. He hadn't been rejected outright and had done nothing to shame himself. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was rather proud of his swift recovery after the first test, and if this was what it took to finally have a chance to prove himself in combat, then Arthur would have the most spotless stables in five kingdoms.

He smiled at Merlin. "I'm already about as humble as I can get."

"Maybe, but Arthur doesn't know that. Probably thinks you're just another cocky noble who needs to be taken down a few pegs. Humor him. It'll be worth it."

"Merlin!" a demanding voice called in the distance. "My armor isn't going to polish itself!"

"Somehow, Lancelot, I don't think you're the one who needs a lesson in humility. I better go. See you tonight!" He trotted away, joining Arthur as they walked back to the palace.

Gwen had been quiet during the brief conversation, but then she smiled up at him as she said, "I need to see about Morgana. She's sure to be awake by now and will be wondering where I am. But you did well, Lancelot. Very well."

"Thank you, my lady."

He wanted to find some other way to express his gratitude for her help, to let her know how much he appreciated everything she'd done. Really, anything that gave him an excuse to linger just a few more minutes in her presence would've been just fine by him. They both had somewhere to be, however, so for the time being, he only bid her farewell, reflecting again on how lovely she was.

Lancelot worked tirelessly at first, but around midafternoon, his sleepless night began to catch up with him. Following that, it was determination rather than energy that kept him going. It was a tedious job, especially considering the size of the royal stables and the impressive number of horses they contained.

Dozens of animals created an unbelievable amount of dung, he quickly realized. He'd always disliked cleaning stables anyway, but back in his village, they were small buildings that held perhaps three or four at a time. They were nothing compared to this.

He kept reminding himself that he should be grateful for the opportunity, especially when covered from head to toe in horse dung, wrinkling his nose at a smell he was quite sure was permanently embedded in his nostrils.

I should feel honored, a monotone voice inside him murmured when the sky began to darken. Exhausted, sore and famished, he'd just realized he still had hours of work to do before he could hope to be finished.


Startled, he turned to find Gwen gazing at him, holding a plate of food in her hands. The scent of roasted chicken filled the air, along with the warm, comforting aroma of fresh baked bread... delicious smells that made him feel almost faint with hunger as his stomach let out an audible growl.

"I-I thought you might be hungry," she said, seeming shy and uncertain. "I'm sure you haven't had a chance to leave the stables, and I was making supper for myself and..."

"It was kind of you to think of me. Yes, I'm starving, but..." he paused, giving the food a wistful look. "I don't want to be caught sitting down to eat while I should be working. Arthur might think..."

"Oh, hang Arthur," she said impatiently, rolling her eyes at him with an appealing smile. "You've been here slaving away since this morning. Have you had a break at all? I bet you haven't even eaten since breakfast."

When he didn't immediately respond, she gave him a knowing look.

"If it would make you feel better, I'll watch at the door and warn you if anyone is coming."

"Thank you, I..." He reached for the plate, then hesitated as he looked down at his filthy hands, stopping to wash them in a pail of fresh water. The moment Gwen had appeared, he'd somehow forgotten that he was covered from head to toe in horse dung. Good lord, I probably smell atrocious.

He felt a rush of embarrassment, followed by a great deal of shame as he realized what a mess he'd made of the clothing she'd spent hours working on the night before. If she was bothered, however, she gave no sign of it, handing him the plate with a gentle smile before she went to keep an eye out as promised.

The food was delicious. He ate ravenously, feeling better than he had in hours by the time he'd finished. With another word of thanks, he walked over to the door to hand her the empty plate.

Forgetting all about how dirty he was, he lingered there, mesmerized all over again by her lovely face. She looked up at him, all big, soft eyes and the faintest trace of a smile dancing around the corners of her mouth.

He should speak... at least try to properly express his gratitude for all her kindness if he couldn't manage anything else. But being so close to her, words became difficult.

She looked as tired as he felt, he noticed with another touch of guilt. He could see the fatigue around her eyes, the slight sag of her shoulders. With that, he had a sudden, almost overpowering urge to wrap his arms around her and let her rest her head against his chest.

No. Even if he were bold enough to try... even if she allowed him to do such a thing, it wouldn't change the fact that he was covered in filth.

"Gwen, you must be tired. You've been losing too much sleep lately for my sake. Please, go home and get some rest."

For a moment, it looked as if she wanted to protest, perhaps to reassure him she was fine or offer something else to ease his mind. But instead, she just nodded in agreement. And then filth and all, she reached out and laid a hand on his arm, giving it a gentle squeeze.

"Goodnight, Lancelot," she said softly.

"Sleep well, my lady."

He thought of her throughout the evening, at least up until the point where he was so far beyond exhausted he couldn't think at all. After that, he continued working with a grim determination that somehow kept him going until the job was completed.

"How'd it go?" Merlin asked him brightly as he practically staggered into the chamber.

All he could manage in response was a tired grunt.

Somehow managing to make it to the tiny bedchamber, some faint recollection of good manners told him to wash up before bed. Stripping his boots and clothes off with every intention of doing just that, he looked at the pallet on the floor and decided to lay down, just long enough to recover a bit of energy.

He was fast asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Longing

"Lancelot, time to wake up."

"Mmmm...?" he mumbled sleepily.


He opened his eyes with a reluctant sigh. It felt as if he'd just fallen asleep, yet bright sunlight was pouring through the window. Merlin was sitting on the bed, staring down at him with an anxious expression.

"What time is it?"

"Past midmorning already. I tried to wake you over an hour ago and you didn't even move. You must have been really tired."

Practically jumping to his feet, he realized a second too late that he was naked beneath the blanket, hastily picking it up and wrapping it around his waist. "Did Arthur summon me? Am I in trouble?"

"Don't worry, I covered for you. He's not expecting you until noon, though he did give me a list of demands to pass along."

"Thank you, Merlin."

It was then that he noticed the filthy bedding, remembering how he'd stripped off his manure covered clothing and passed out on the floor. He gestured helplessly at the pallet. "I'm sorry..."

"Hey, don't worry about it," Merlin said with a smile. "You know, it was your turn for the bed last night. Seeing how dirty you are though, I'm glad you slept where you did."

Lancelot caught a whiff of himself and wrinkled his nose in distaste. "I should wash up."

"And I should be seeing to Arthur. He's being even more of a prat than usual this morning if that's possible. There's a bath waiting for you in the outer chamber and I've had your boots and clothes cleaned. Oh, and Gaius left breakfast in the pot before he went out this morning. Porridge again, but at least it's hot."

Alone in the silent chamber, Lancelot piled the dirty bedding in the corner, then swept the floor where he'd lain. Naked, he walked down the steps and into the outer chamber, anticipating the pleasure of another hot bath. He felt better now that he was fully awake, but his muscles were still a little sore from the endless shoveling the day before.

Resisting the urge to linger in the steaming water, he scrubbed himself until he was certain not a trace of manure remained. It might be a wasted effort if Arthur had assigned him another day of work in the stables, but for the time being at least, he felt fresh and clean as he rose out of the water, toweled himself off, then dressed in his freshly laundered clothing.

Sitting down at the table, he helped himself to a bowl of porridge, reaching for Arthur's list.


The stables are slightly less dirty this morning. Good. You'll be seeing them again soon enough, but here are a few other duties for you in the meantime:

Sweep the guardhouse.

Polish the boots that have been left out for you in the armory... and the armor too, while you're at it.

You'll find a pile of swords behind the stables. Sharpen them.

If you don't find a way to muck any of that up, find me at the training grounds when you're finished for further instruction.


After he finished the quick job of sweeping the guardhouse, Lancelot spent a couple hours in the armory, polishing twenty pairs of boots and half as many sets of armor. It was tedious work, but much of the time passed easily as he imagined himself as a Knight of Camelot. Dreamily, he pictured outfitting himself in a full set of plate, then riding off to battle with a proud red cape billowing behind him.

He soon moved on to sharpening swords, seating himself in the shade of a crafter's shop and working steadily with blade and whetstone. The practiced motions and gentle scrape of stone on steel soothed him as they always did, and he found that most of his attention was focused on enjoying the quiet hum of city life.

Much of his training had involved learning to have a heightened awareness of his surroundings, an ability that served him well as he felt rather than saw a shadow approach from around the corner. Though he gave no outward acknowledgment of the new presence, he was fully prepared when an object was tossed at his head, catching it effortlessly.

"Not bad."

"Would you like me to sweep the guardhouse again, sire?" he questioned with a small bow, trying to sound as humble as possible.

"It certainly needs sweeping," Arthur replied, picking up a second broom and breaking off the bristles. "But first, I want you to kill me."


"Come on. Don't pretend you don't want to. Hell, if I were you, I'd want to."

Lancelot loosened the handle of his broom, suddenly understanding that the duties he'd been commanded to perform had a purpose after all. Arthur had been testing him... not to see how well he cleaned stables or how effectively he could polish a pair of boots. He'd been trying to make him angry and resentful, to put him in a fighting mood.

It was probably an effective strategy for a new recruit, a good way to cut through any arrogance or sense of entitlement and get to the heart of who he was as a fighter. Of course, it hadn't really worked on Lancelot, who was grateful to have even the slightest chance at a knighthood. He'd never begrudge Arthur any service that might be asked of him in the process.

And now, my first chance to prove myself in combat, he realized with a surge of excitement.

But facing his opponent, he was suddenly hesitant to strike. This was the Prince of Camelot, the future ruler of the kingdom. It was difficult to treat him like any other sparring partner. Maybe he should…? No. Orders were orders, and besides, how else could he hope to show this man what he could do?

"Come on."

Arthur easily deflected the first blow, yet he neatly maneuvered to avoid the returning thrusts. So far, so good, he thought to himself.

"Come on, Lancelot, you're not beating a carpet."

Instinct took over then and he fought in earnest. Lightning quick blows rained down from both opponents, neither managing to land a hit. The clatter of wood slamming against wood rang through the street as each man thrusted, parried, and did his best to find an opening to no avail.

He's the best fighter I've ever seen, Lancelot told himself, even as he realized with a touch of amazement that he was holding his own quite well against such incredible skill.

There wasn't much room for thought beyond that, as he was knocked off balance and shoved backward into a cart of hay. It could have easily ended there with Arthur poised above him, ready to take advantage of his vulnerable position to score a direct hit, but Lancelot twisted to the side and found his feet again.

With a fresh surge of confidence, he went on the offensive, meeting the other man with a series of bold attacks. He was just beginning to think he might actually win the fight when Arthur managed to find a small opening; the broom handle slammed into his stomach, knocking the wind out of him.

Stunned, he gasped for air, resisting the urge to double over.

"Congratulations, Lancelot," Arthur said, tossing him the other stick and looking almost impressed. "You just made basic training."

A thrill shot through him, but there was no time to savor the moment as the clanging of bells rang through the city. Suddenly, guards and townsfolk alike were running past in a panic. The sound of screaming could be heard in the distance as Arthur glanced back at him with an expression of alarm, then ran off in the direction of the commotion.

An invasion?

He set his feet in motion and broke into a run, following the hysterical crowd. As he made his way through the main square and toward the city gates, he began to see dozens of refugees that must have come from some outlying village. They were clearly terrified, and while many were unharmed, others were bleeding from a variety of injuries.

"Just came from out of nowhere. Didn't know what was happening! Locked myself in the cellar and..." an elderly woman cried as Lancelot passed, her voice shaking.

"My brother and two uncles... tried to fight... dead. All dead!" another man sobbed as a pair of townsfolk attempted to bandage a large, nasty looking gash on his arm.

For Lancelot, it was a chilling reminder of the day his own village had been attacked by raiders. He was suddenly besieged by flashbacks, remembering all the innocent people who'd been brutally cut down in front of his eyes. Family, friends, everyone he'd loved... butchered like animals. And himself a young child, unable to do a thing about it.

Never again, he vowed silently. 

"What happened to these people?" he demanded when he found Merlin and Gaius tending to an injured woman just inside the city gates.

"Their village was attacked by a winged monster," Gaius replied in a somber voice.

The monster! Lancelot exchanged a grim look with Merlin, ashamed that he'd given the creature so little thought over the previous few days. With a feeling of dread, he remembered his own inability to so much as wound the creature, even when he'd delivered a direct hit.

While he'd been so distracted by his dreams of knighthood, this menace had been roaming free, putting hundreds of innocent lives in peril. And now, these poor people...

He wasn't sure what he could've done to prevent this from happening, but he should have tried something. Perhaps he should've hunted the creature himself, sacrificing his own life if necessary. A true knight's first thought was for the safety of the people he was sworn to protect, not of his own ambitions.

Silently, he vowed to offer whatever assistance he could to anyone who would accept it. It didn't matter that he was not yet a knight. His loyalty already lay with Camelot, and it was his responsibility to do everything in his power to protect the kingdom and its people.

"What can I do to help?" he asked Gaius.

Gwen made her way through the courtyard, feeling a rush of sympathy for the battered, terrified refugees. Attacked by some sort of winged beast, the scouts had reported. It must have been the same one Lancelot had faced when he'd been protecting Merlin. After all, how many bloodthirsty monsters could be wandering around the kingdom at any given time?

As she witnessed the devastation around her, she was amazed Lancelot had managed to escape with only a minor injury. How was that possible? The creature must be quite dangerous if it could ravage an entire village this way. Gwen had believed Merlin to be unintentionally exaggerating, his fear and confusion causing him to remember it as larger and more menacing than perhaps was accurate.

Obviously not. Suddenly, she began to understand how brave Lancelot must have been to face such a beast with nothing but a sword and his own strength, especially to defend a stranger he'd never even met.

She spotted him in the distance just then, working beside Gaius and Merlin as they tended to a small group of injured villagers. As she approached, she noticed a difference between his actions and those of the other two. Gaius and Merlin both worked quickly, with grace and skill. The physician had a lifetime of practice as a healer, of course, and Merlin seemed to have a natural talent for these things.

In contrast, Lancelot was clearly out of his element. His motions were clumsy and uncertain as he attempted to wrap a bandage around an elderly woman's arm, shaking his head and adjusting it several times before he seemed satisfied. Gwen saw his lips moving as he spoke to the refugee, receiving a wan smile iin response as she reached out with her uninjured arm and patted his cheek.

Probably apologizing far beyond what's necessary, she thought to herself, then smiled inwardly as she came into hearing distance and realized she'd been right.

"Gaius? Morgana sent me to offer whatever assistance I could. What can I do to help?"

The old man greeted her with a strained smile. "There are many who need tending, as you can see. Can you fetch some water? Supplies, too. We're running low. Go to my chamber and find some fresh bandages, would you? Oh, and honey. I need more honey. Sheets and blankets... what else?"

Gwen did her best to follow the somewhat scattered requests, hoping she wouldn't forget anything.

"And take this one with you to help carry it all. Lancelot?"

He was tending to a young boy with a nasty gash on his forehead, murmuring soothing words as he dabbed ineffectually at the wound with a wet cloth. Listening closely as Gaius repeated the list of supplies, he rose and handed Merlin the cloth with an expression that was full of both guilt and relief.

Poor Lancelot, Gwen thought to herself as the pair walked silently toward the palace a few minutes later. His somber, helpless glances at the refugees they passed along the way had not escaped her notice. He's a fighter, not a healer.

Title or not, he was a knight at heart. His skills lay in doing everything he could to prevent something like this from happening in the first place, not cleaning up the damage after the fact.

Once they'd reached Gaius's chambers, Lancelot gathered sheets and bandages, packing them into a large basket. When he moved on to the herbs and potions, however, Gwen had to place several vials back on the shelves and exchange them for the correct ones. She tried to do it when she thought he wouldn't notice, but he saw what she was doing out of the corner of his eye and frowned.

"I'm not very good at this," he said with a sigh. "I know very little about healing or medicine, or... I'm sorry."

"You're doing everything you can to help. No one could expect more."

Lancelot didn't have a home or family here, hadn't taken vows nor anything else that would leave a person feeling obligated to serve the kingdom. Yet here he was, tending to the wounded while most of Camelot's army were idling in the palace, expecting that others would clean up the mess. She'd seen a scattering of red cloaks helping the refugees, but those had been few and far between.

No, he had nothing to be sorry about. Why did he look so guilty?

He spoke then, as if somehow sensing her thoughts. "The creature... I couldn't kill it. It didn't even take a wound. I struck it hard. I know I did."

Gwen moved closer and placed a hand on his arm. The muscles beneath her fingers were firm and strong; it was easy to imagine that the full force of that arm behind a sharp sword could strike a powerful blow. She found it as bewildering as he did that the creature had escaped unharmed.

Unable to provide a rational explanation, she offered the only thing she could think of. "The king will find a solution, I'm sure of it. After all, he has an army at his disposal, not to mention the most learned minds in the kingdom. Try not to worry, Lancelot."

The tension around his mouth softened and he smiled down at her. "You're right. It's a bit arrogant of me to behave as if I'm the only one who can find a solution, isn't it? Who am I compared to...?"

"That's not what I meant. I know it's in your nature to be humble and I admire you for it, but give yourself a little credit. Whatever you did, you obviously saved Merlin's life. And when you become a knight, I'm sure none will serve more loyally than you. You're valuable to Camelot, whether Camelot knows it yet or not."

He was visibly moved by her words, gazing down at her with an expression full of hope, gratitude... and a sort of naked longing she didn't quite understand. Was it for Camelot and all his dreams of knighthood? Was it for her? Or perhaps both?

She'd almost forgotten her hand was still resting on his arm until he covered it with his own. His was large and rough, covered in calluses, yet his touch was warm and surprisingly gentle. For an endless moment, nothing in the world existed beyond the texture of his skin and the intensity in his eyes, smoldering with some unknown heat. Gwen stared up into them helplessly, unable to look away.

Her legs began to tremble; she felt a little breathless as he took a step closer. His gaze dropped to her mouth, sending a curiously pleasant shiver down her spine.

He's going to kiss me, she suddenly realized.

It was intoxicating... and frightening. It had all happened so quickly, leaving her feeling both timid and overwhelmed. She wasn't ready for this. It was too much, too soon. No, she needed time to make sense of it all before it went any further.

Abruptly, she dropped her gaze and took a quick step backward. "We need to get these supplies down to Gaius."

Nodding in agreement, Lancelot cleared his throat somewhat awkwardly. She risked a look at his face, fearing he might be frustrated or angry with her for withdrawing the way she had... or worse, that he might have taken it as a hurtful rejection.

When she met his eyes, however, the heat was gone, replaced by the same soft admiration that had been there since the moment they'd met. Giving her a placid smile, he turned to retrieve the supplies, not seeming to expect any sort of apology or explanation.

He asked her a flurry of questions as they made their way back through the city, inquiring about the healing powers of rosemary, then wondering why Gaius had wanted so much honey. Knowing he was trying to put her at ease, she appreciated his efforts. It was amazing that he had the power to make her feel so unsettled in one moment, then completely comfortable the next.

From that point until late into the evening, they worked to assist the refugees. The number of wounded seemed endless, but somehow, the final villager was bandaged and sheltered at long last. Merlin and Gaius packed up the remaining supplies and retired to their chamber, leaving Lancelot to see Gwen safely home.

When they reached her doorstep, she gave him a sleepy smile as she raised a hand to stifle a yawn.

"Goodnight, Lancelot."

Before she realized what was happening, he was pressing a gentle, lingering kiss to the back of her hand, caressing it with his thumb before he finally released it. Feeling a pleasant shiver in the pit of her stomach, she knew she'd be dreaming of those warm lips on her skin as she drifted off to sleep. Why didn't I let him kiss me earlier? Suddenly, she couldn't quite remember.

"Goodnight... my lady."

It was only when the bolt was slid firmly into place that she heard the sound of his retreating footsteps.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: The Final Test

Just before sunrise the following morning, Lancelot rose and dressed as quietly as he could manage. Merlin was sleeping peacefully, sprawled out with one arm hanging off the bed. Giving his friend an affectionate smile, he slipped silently from the room.

Gaius was fast asleep at the table, his head resting on an old book he must've been studying late into the night. Doing his best not to disturb him, Lancelot searched the chamber, trying to find parchment and something to write with.

Not noticing the small vial that was sitting precariously close to the edge of the shelf he'd been investigating, he winced as it toppled over and hit the floor with a loud shatter.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

Scolding himself for his clumsiness, he shot Gaius a guilty look. "Nothing. I'm truly sorry. I was looking for parchment and accidentally knocked over..." He gestured helplessly at the shattered glass on the floor. "I hope it wasn't valuable."

"Don't worry, Lancelot. Just a bit of clove oil. I have plenty more where that came from." The elderly man rose to his feet and stretched, grumbling half audible complaints about his aching back and being far too old to be sleeping on tables.

"Did you find what you were looking for?" he asked after a moment, giving Lancelot a quizzical look.

"No... well, I suppose I don't need it now. Would you mind telling Merlin I went out for a walk and that I'll see him later today? I didn't want him to worry."

For the first time since his arrival, Lancelot ventured beyond the outer walls. Finding an ideal spot on a nearby rise, he sat down with a sigh of contentment, watching as the first rays of sunlight bathed the towering spires of Camelot in gentle hues of pink and gold. It was a breathtaking sight, one that quieted his overactive mind and left him with a renewed certainty that his destiny lay within that beautiful city.

There'd been moments when he'd worried that his dream might be nothing more than a trick of the imagination, an unrealistic fantasy that would never come true. After all, how could the real Camelot possibly measure up to all of the grand expectations he'd built up in his mind over the years?

But no... he'd come to discover that the opposite was true. Camelot far surpassed the city he'd dreamed of, and in ways he would've never expected. Just a few days within those walls and he'd been changed forever, thanks to the people he'd been privileged enough to meet.

Merlin... kind and understanding, willing to do so much for him while asking nothing in return.

Arthur... clearly a skillful warrior, someone to be respected in many other ways as well. What an honor it would be to serve under a man like him, to help him shape this kingdom into a land where justice and the greater good would always prevail.

And Gwen... beautiful, amazing, compassionate Gwen. In all his wildest dreams, he could have never imagined he'd meet someone like her.

He smiled to himself, remembering her hasty withdrawal the day before. She was such an innocent... he'd been able to see that the first time he'd ever looked in her eyes. Not that he was all that experienced himself, of course, but he knew enough to understand that their attraction was far from ordinary.

There was something powerful between them already. Deep, real, something with the potential to be... he didn't even know. Bigger than he could possibly imagine? He was sure Gwen felt it, too, and that it was fear of the unknown that had caused her to pull back with an expression of bewilderment.

Despite his growing hunger, Lancelot didn't mind taking things slow if that was what she needed. It didn't seem to matter that it might be days, months, or even years before the attraction between them went any further. Just feeling the way he did was enough.

One thing he loved about her was that she didn't realize how beautiful she was. That gave her a kind of honesty that couldn't be found in women who were fully aware of their charms, swaying men with their bodies, affected mannerisms, sweet words and coy little smiles. Gwen was different, inspiring admiration without any intention of doing so, which was something he found so much more intriguing.

Did she ever…?

But then his reverie was interrupted by the sound of bells in the distance, and with a great deal of surprise, he looked up at the position of the sun to realize that it was midmorning. Hastily, he made his way back through the city, stopping to listen as he came upon Arthur instructing a group of knights in the square.

"The beast is heading for Camelot. It's fast and agile, but big enough to hit and hit hard. Starting today, your training routines will concentrate on an attack strategy. We don't have much time. Dismissed."

He did say I'm in basic training, Lancelot reminded himself, desperately wanting to be involved somehow. If Camelot was in danger, that meant Merlin, Gaius, and Gwen would all be in peril, along with countless other innocent people. Knight or not, he couldn't just stand by and do nothing. 

With that thought, he approached Arthur, giving him a respectful bow.

"Yes, Lancelot?"

"Is there anything I can do, sire? It's just... I know that in the event of battle, only a knight may serve."

"That's correct And you are not yet a knight... which is why I'm bringing your test forward. You'll face me in the morning."

He stared after the prince as he walked away, hardly able to believe his good fortune. Just like that? 

Thrilled, he rushed off to tell Merlin.

Letting out a weary sigh, Gwen shut the door to Morgana's chamber with a great deal of relief. After spending so many hours tending to the refugees the day before, she'd fallen behind on her usual chores. She had no idea how Morgana could've created so much mess in such a short time, but it felt as if she hadn't had a moment to rest since she'd gotten out of bed that morning.


She turned around, finding herself face to face with a grinning Merlin.

"Hello," she said with a tired smile. "And why are you so happy?"

Calling him "happy" was an understatement; he was practically vibrating with excitement. Despite her overwhelming desire to go straight home and crawl into bed, she couldn't help her curiosity.

"Lancelot! He faces Arthur in the morning for his final test! Gwen... this is it! He's almost there!"

"Just like that?" she said, suddenly forgetting all about how tired she'd been. "That's wonderful! I was sure Arthur was going to torture him for weeks with his senseless demands."

Merlin snorted. "No, he's already got me for that."

She couldn't help but laugh. While she understood Merlin was his personal servant, Arthur really did go out of his way to make the job as difficult as possible. Admiring her friend for his seemingly limitless patience, she knew she would've left her position long ago if Morgana was even half as demanding as Arthur sseemed to be.

"It's because of the creature, I think. He knows he's going to need all the strength he can get. Lancelot is a great fighter, and while Arthur is definitely an arrogant prat, he's not stupid."

"But how does he know what kind of fighter Lancelot is? They only just met a couple days ago, and Arthur did nothing but knock him down before sending him off to clean the stables until he was ready to drop from exhaustion."

Merlin shook his head, then told her about the duel the two had fought the day before, the details of which Lancelot had related as they'd been falling asleep the previous night.

Gwen gave him a dubious look. "But he didn't win. Doesn't he have to beat Arthur to become a knight?"

"If that was the case, we wouldn't have any knights. Arthur would be riding off to face Camelot's enemies all by himself: an army of one."

She raised an eyebrow.

"Well, I'm sure he'd drag me along, but that's not the point. Lancelot doesn't have to win. He only needs to last through one minute of free combat. From what he told me about yesterday, it took longer than that for Arthur to land a hit. He's good, Gwen. Trust me. He's going to make it."

It was a very different Lancelot who stood quietly on the sidelines of the training grounds the next morning, helmet tucked beneath one steady arm. He'd been in a similar position only two days before, waiting for Arthur as Gwen and Merlin had adjusted his armor and offered various encouragements. But the anxiety that had afflicted him then was nowhere to be found today.

This Lancelot held his head high and stared straight ahead with steely determination, as if nothing in the world could shake his confidence.

This was his moment... not some first introduction or merely the hope of a chance at some point in the future. At last, his time had come, and he had no intention of ruining it with a simple case of nerves. He was beyond that now.

Seeming to sense his mood, Gwen and Merlin had said little as they'd escorted him down to the training grounds. Lancelot was grateful to them both, knowing that even if he failed, neither would withdraw their support or think any less of him. But somehow, that realization made him even more determined to prove himself. Even if his success wasn't necessary in order to win their respect, he desperately wanted to justify their faith in him, to show them the very best he had to offer.

And then his name was called and he was beckoned forward. To one side, he heard Merlin whisper "good luck!" On the other, a small hand reached out and squeezed his gloved one for the merest instant before letting it go.

He stepped out onto the field, and just like that, his moment was upon him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Sir Lancelot

Lancelot's confidence seemed unshakable as he stood in front of Arthur with his dark head held high. Waiting for further instruction, he took a deep breath and pushed a stray lock of hair out of his eyes, his gaze unwavering and filled with determination.

Merlin had been right. He was ready for this.

"Well, here we are. Your final challenge. Succeed and you join the elite. Fail and your journey ends here. Lancelot, Fifth Son of Lord Eldred of Northumbria. Your time starts now."

The hourglass was set in place and without further ado, the fight was on.

Steel crashed against steel as the first blows were struck and easily deflected by both combatants. Lancelot was a skilled fighter, Gwen quickly realized, and well matched to his opponent. Not only were his maneuvers highly effective, but he moved with grace and certainty at every turn. Without question, there was an instinct to his movements that went well beyond his long years of training.

No, this wasn't a boy who'd come to Camelot with fanciful dreams and a few learned techniques. This man was a born warrior.

He swung hard, scoring the first hit as his sword smashed into Arthur's helmet with a deafening crash. If he'd struck an average opponent with that kind of force, it was almost certain that the fight would've ended right there. But of course, Arthur was no ordinary man, having been trained practically since birth to endure brutal blows.

Only a few seconds later, he tried the maneuver again to no avail. Arthur anticipated his intention, ducking swiftly to avoid impact. Lancelot's sword swung wide, slicing through empty air.

Gwen gasped, remembering her father once telling her that there was a great deal of vulnerability in attempting to land a blow that didn't connect. The few seconds it took a man to regain his balance could easily mean defeat.

But no... Lancelot recovered quickly enough to deflect the next swing, though it was impossible to say whether he'd done so on his own, or if Arthur had hesitated ever so briefly to allow for it. Either way, the fight continued as the attacks increased in both speed and ferocity.

He was largely on the offensive now, meeting Arthur with a quick succession of brutal thrusts. The prince swung back with equal force, aiming at any vulnerability he could find, but Lancelot twisted gracefully, hindering his blade at every turn.

Gwen glanced at the hourglass, noting with breathless excitement that it was nearly empty.

Almost there, Lancelot. You can...

It was at the very last second that he faltered, leaving himself open for no more than the blink of an eye. Taking immediate advantage of the opportunity, Arthur struck him hard, slamming him in the face with the back of a gloved fist. With a grunt of surprise, he fell heavily to the ground and lay still.

No... oh, Lancelot, you were so close!

Merlin had explained that an opponent was considered defeated when he was rendered defenseless. That was definitely true for Lancelot... he looked unconscious. Worried he might be seriously injured, Gwen had to resist the urge to rush to his side, even as she silently argued on his behalf.

No, this couldn't be it. Arthur would be a fool to eliminate him over one tiny slip, no matter what the rules might've been. He was a far better fighter than most of the seasoned knights she'd seen training here over the years, and he'd developed those skills completely on his own. Imagine what he might be capable of if given the advantages…


Her heart sank as Arthur approached the prone body, bending down to strip away his colors. It was over.

No, this wasn't right. He...

But before she could finish the thought, the prince was flat on his back with the point of a sword hovering over him, staring up at Lancelot in shock. The movement had been swift and unanticipated, a blur of motion that would've been deadly in any other situation.

"Do you submit, sire?" Lancelot said with that quiet determination still burning in his eyes.

Gwen held her breath as three guards rushed forward to grab him, holding him fast as Arthur pushed himself to his feet.

"On your knees!"

She'd never seen Arthur so furious, practically trembling with rage as he pressed his blade to Lancelot's chest. Had the latter unknowingly committed some violation he'd now have to pay for with imprisonment, or worse? A single word from the prince and he could be executed on the spot. There'd be no one to prevent it.

But deep down, she found it hard to believe there was anything to fear. Arthur might be exceedingly arrogant, but she'd never known cruelty or injustice to be part of his nature. Angry or not, he'd never kill an unarmed man in cold blood. She was certain of that.

For a seemingly endless time, he glared down at Lancelot without speaking. But just when she was ready to scream to break the tension, his features suddenly relaxed, followed by a soft chuckle.

"Lancelot has passed his test. Release him."

King Uther lifted his sword and tapped him gently, first on one shoulder and then the other. "Arise, Sir Lancelot," he said in a regal voice. "Knight of Camelot."

As Lancelot rose to his feet, he glanced behind the king and saw Merlin standing with Arthur, nodding and clapping exuberantly. On the other side, Gwen was in the company of a dark haired woman who he assumed must be the Lady Morgana. Her eyes were shining, obviously enjoying his triumph in a quieter way.

He tried to give the appearance of being respectful and dignified, fighting the overwhelming urge to grin like a simpleminded fool. The temptation to jump up and down like an excited child crossed his mind, as did a sudden impulse to take Gwen in his arms and kiss her right then and there in front of the king and everyone else.

Good sense and even better manners prevailed, however; he maintained his composure as he returned his attention to King Uther.

"You do us a great honor, Sir Lancelot. The knighthood is the very foundation of Camelot."

"The honor is all mine, sire," he replied sincerely.

"Your father would be very proud."

He was confused at first, until he realized Uther was referring to the unknown Lord of Northumbria, not the simple farmer who'd been his real father.

"Yes, sire," he responded, beginning to feel ill at ease. It wasn't a lie. Not exactly.

"I haven't seen Lord Eldred for many years." Uther's tone was mild and friendly, but his gaze was penetrating. "Longer than I'd imagined, it seems. Last time I saw him, he only had four sons."

Resisting the urge to panic, Lancelot searched his mind frantically for the proper response. "Well," he said with a nervous laugh, "here I am."

The king seemed to soften at that, giving him a warm smile. "Indeed you are. And I've kept you too long already. Enjoy the celebrations."

He bowed respectfully. "Sire."

There was no time to dwell on the uncomfortable exchange, however, as his fellow knights crowded around him to offer their congratulations. Arthur threw a friendly arm around his shoulders, guiding him from the room as the others followed close behind.

Lancelot thought they'd be heading to the hall where the feast was to be held, but that was not the case. First was a stop at the armory, where he was measured for his cloak and armor as flagons of ale were passed around.

"Tradition," Arthur said.

The main celebration would be enjoyed by the entire court, of course, but the first toast was always shared strictly among the knights. Each in turn offered his name and a few words of welcome for the newcomer, cups clinked together and they all drank deeply of the finest brew Lancelot had ever tasted. Yes, he could easily get used to this.

Up until the moment they entered the hall, he'd been too overwhelmed by the events of the day to think about food. As they joined the feast, however, his senses were suddenly assaulted by the smell of roasted meat, fresh baked bread, and countless other appetizing odors, leaving him so famished that he almost felt faint.

There was so much food. Dozens of platters covered the long tables, piled high with every kind of dish he could possibly imagine, along with many more he didn't even recognize.

He ate ravenously, devouring herb crusted chicken, stuffed pheasant, duck dripping with honey glaze, so tender it practically melted in his mouth. Following that, he sampled vegetables swimming in rich sauces and creams, finished off a platter of fresh fruit, then accepted a thick slice of roasted boar. When the meat was gone, he soaked up its succulent juices with a chunk of dense black bread, finally leaning back in his chair and patting his stomach with a satisfied grunt.

Meanwhile, the ale flowed freely, a rich and heady brew unlike any he'd ever tasted. After downing three or four cups with his meal, he tried not to overindulge, soon discovering he had little choice in the matter. Every time he tried to set his cup down, he saw another person raising a toast in his direction. It would've been impolite not to respond in kind.

All of this, in his honor. It was difficult to imagine, remembering all those years of solitary training where no one had seemed to care one way or another if he achieved his goal. He could've never imagined a reaction like this, people he didn't even know looking on him with admiration in their eyes as they nodded and smiled in his direction.

Arthur himself came to sit beside him, and it was with some amazement he realized the conversation that ensued was not one of a royal speaking to a commoner, but that of equals, perhaps even friends.

"That was some trick you pulled today. I can't remember the last time anyone was able to take me by surprise, at least not on the field. Well done."

Ordinarily, Lancelot would've bowed his head and offered a suitably humble response. But tonight he was drunk on a heady mixture of triumph, pride, satisfaction and a great deal of ale, all of which brought him to the decision that just this once, he wouldn't minimize his accomplishment. After all, why should he? It had been an exceedingly clever move.

"You put me on my backside at our first meeting, sire. I considered it my solemn duty to return the favor."

Arthur snorted. "Yes, well, you were lucky. Don't expect me to make it so easy the next time you face me."

They chatted pleasantly after that, with the prince pointing out various knights and sharing tidbits about each of them. This one was extremely skilled with the crossbow, while that one was known for his prowess at the mace.

Lancelot tried to remember it all, but he couldn't even seem to get the names straight. The slender man with the dark skin and eyes... was that Sir Merek or Sir Leon? And the tall man with the honey colored curls who'd been particularly kind to him... Sir Walter, was it?

"Here's trouble," Arthur said with a touch of amusement.

Gwen... Lancelot watched her smile at her companion as the room suddenly seemed warmer and a little hazy. It was unclear whether that was the ale affecting him or the power of her presence, but it hardly mattered. He was just happy she was here.

"Tell me, do you think her... beautiful?"

He knew a moment of panic before he realized Arthur was staring at the woman in the burgundy dress. Yes, the Lady Morgana was indeed quite attractive, and it was obvious she was well aware of her beauty in the way she tossed her head, smirking playfully at a couple of nearby knights who couldn't seem to take their eyes off her.

But it was only the briefest evaluation on Lancelot's part. His eyes had already shifted back to Gwen, admiring her sweet smile and the gentle curve of her neck.

"Yes, sire," he said softly. "I do."

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: Still Not a Lady

Lancelot's celebration was in full swing as Gwen went to stand beside Merlin, the large hall filled with the sounds of laughter and animated conversation. Ale flowed freely in the aftermath of the sumptuous feast, and the guest of honor, seated next to Arthur with his tankard clutched tightly in one hand, was beaming with happiness.

She'd been so elated as she'd watched him kneel before Uther that afternoon, his handsome face full of hope and quiet satisfaction. Warm sunlight had been pouring through the windows as he'd received his long-awaited knighthood, seeming to bless him with its soft golden glow.

Unfortunately that blissful moment hadn't lasted, immediately followed by an unpleasant realization that had brought her crashing back down to earth.

"Who is this man?" Morgana had asked, her blue eyes bright with curiosity. "He seems to have come out of nowhere."

Gwen had instantly recognized the speculative look in her eyes, feeling a sharp stab of jealousy in the pit of her stomach that had taken her breath away.

"I know," she'd said out loud, doing her best to sound unperturbed. "It's been a bit of a surprise… to all of us."

She was still trying to convince herself there was nothing to worry about, even as she noticed with a great deal of discomfort that the other woman's gaze was still following him around the room. After all, Morgana admired many men from a distance, never acting on the majority of her attractions.

But what if she did in this case? She was stunningly beautiful, naturally seductive, and completely confident around men. If she took it upon herself to pursue Lancelot, how could he resist her? Gwen had never seen a man who was immune to Morgana's charms... not even Arthur, though he loved to pretend otherwise.

Then she had an even more disturbing realization. As a sworn knight and the son of a noble house, Lancelot would be expected to take an interest in others of his rank. If not Lady Morgana herself, then courtiers or the daughters of high lords... other members of the nobility, not humble serving girls like herself.

But in the end, wasn't it a bit presumptuous of her to concern herself over the future? She knew Lancelot had been attracted to her, but that didn't mean he'd been serious about his feelings or had any wish to pursue them further than they'd already gone. A few admiring looks and sweet words didn't necessarily mean anything, did they? Especially coming from a man who was obviously chivalrous by nature.

Stubbornly, she decided to suppress any reminder that might prove otherwise. She wouldn't think about the way he'd looked at her as if she were the only person in the room, or remember the sensation of his warm lips caressing her skin as he'd kissed her hand. And most of all, she'd forget the hungry look in his eyes that had caused her to feel so flustered and quickly withdraw.

She'd been right to pull back from what must've only been an impulse of the moment on his part. After all, how could it have been anything more than that? They'd only met a few days before, and while he might have felt drawn to her out of gratitude or perhaps loneliness, that hardly meant his feelings had been anything she should've taken seriously.

Besides, everything was different now. He was surrounded by fellow knights, courtiers, dozens of nobles along with Camelot's most venerated citizens, all looking on him with interest and approval. He wouldn't find himself lacking for friends after tonight... or female attention, for that matter.

Noticing a pretty blonde courtier studying him with open admiration, Gwen's heart sank as the woman whispered something to her equally lovely companion, the pair dissolving in a fit of giggles.

"You know what?" Merlin said, interrupting her dismal thoughts. "I think our Sir Lancelot might have eyes for you, Gwen."

"Don't be silly," she replied with an uncomfortable laugh.

"What? So what if he did? Would that really be so bad?"

Yes, it was bad to be having this conversation at all when the last thing she should be doing was getting her hopes up. She needed to distance herself from her attraction, so it wouldn't hurt to feel herself fading into the background as Lancelot settled into his new position as a Knight of Camelot.

The tiny flutter in her stomach in response to Merlin's words certainly wasn't helping with that.

"He's not really my type," she scoffed, trying to sound nonchalant.

"Oh, well, there's a surprise. Sometimes, Guinevere, I wonder if you'd know what your type was if he was standing right next to you."

"You're probably right."

Yes, what did she know about men? Close to nothing. it had been easy to forget that while swept up in the romance of Lancelot and his noble aspirations, but in the cold light of reality, she was still the shy, bumbling, practically invisible Gwen she'd always been.

"So come on, just for the sake of argument. If you had to choose, Arthur or Lancelot?"

The question took her off guard. How could she respond to that? One was humble, noble, sweet, and incredibly brave, not to mention impossibly handsome. The other was Arthur.

"But I don't have to and I never will," she said lightly, glad she sounded so unaffected. It was true... the idea that she'd ever be in that sort of position was absurd.

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Oh, you're no fun, Gwen."

Yes, she was being a bit of a downer, brooding to herself on what was supposed to be a happy occasion. Tonight was about Lancelot, not herself; determined to put her own worries aside from that moment forward, she focused on Arthur as he rose to his feet and lifted his cup.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a toast to our new recruit... our new Knight of Camelot. Sir Lancelot!"

Lancelot's face broke into a radiant smile and her heart melted. Yes, this was exactly the way it should be. He'd worked so hard for this and he deserved to be recognized for his efforts. That was all that mattered.

With that thought, she put any further reservations from her mind, then applauded with real enthusiasm. Well done, Sir Lancelot, she thought warmly. Well done indeed.

The celebrations grew louder and more wild as the night progressed. One by one, the older revelers began to slip from the hall, leaving the younger attendants to carry on without them. The seemingly endless flow of alcohol never slowed as cups were filled, quickly drained, and then filled again.

One unfortunate man was already passed out, completely oblivious to his companions as they roared with laughter, dipping their fingers in a bowl of gravy and drawing crude insults all over his face.

Lancelot was seated with two other knights, trying not to make his discomfort too obvious as they pointed out different serving women and enumerated rather colorfully on their various charms.

"Had her once," the blond knight slurred, nodding at a sweet looking girl with mousy brown hair as she moved across the room. "Seems modest, but she'll yowl like a cat in heat if you stick her just right."

His friend snorted, his eyes passing dismissively over the servant before focusing on the Lady Morgana. She was leaning against a pillar on the other side of the room, occasionally sipping from a glass of wine as she spoke with a small group of courtiers. From time to time, she paused to flash a beguiling smile in their direction.

"I'll take your word for it. Me, I'd prefer to set my sights a little higher."

The first knight followed his gaze. "Ah, we'd all love a night between her pretty thighs. Too bad the king would have a man's cock cut off if he even thought about touching his precious ward."

"Not sure it wouldn't be worth it..."

The rest of the knight's words were lost as Lancelot quietly slipped away.

Feeling overwhelmed as he weaved unsteadily through the maze of tables and scattered chairs, he managed to find himself a quiet corner that was half hidden behind a pillar. The room seemed overly warm and glaringly bright; it was a relief to close his eyes and rest his forehead against the cold stone of the column for a few minutes.

The evening was catching up with him. For hours now, he'd accepted endless congratulations and conversed with dozens of people. One had barely finished before the next was upon him, and after a while, he'd begun to feel strained by all the attention. Appreciative or not, what he wanted more than anything was a moment alone to collect himself.

Of course, that was easier said than done. He'd lost count after his sixth cup of ale and that had been hours ago. The more he tried to focus his thoughts, the more scattered they became. There was no logic, just a seemingly nonsensical mishmash of emotions flying around in his head.

As ungrateful as it seemed, he couldn't help wishing everyone else would just disappear so he could spend a little time with Gwen. He'd been wanting to seek her out all evening, and although he'd tried on several occasions, politely excusing himself and moving in her direction, he'd always been intercepted by someone else before he could reach her.

He blinked hard as his vision blurred before coming sharply into focus, his eyes scanning the room in a desperate search for her face. Unfortunately, she was nowhere to be seen.

Disappointment washed over him upon the realization that she'd probably already retired for the evening. He hadn't even had a chance to speak to her since before his test, which seemed like ages ago. There was something he wanted to tell her... well, he couldn't quite remember what it was, but it had to be important. Yes, he needed to…

"Congratulations, Sir Lancelot," spoke a soft, sweetly familiar voice behind him.

And then the jumble of thoughts seemed to settle, prompting a sigh of relief as he turned to greet her with a brilliant smile. His new title had been spoken countless times throughout the evening, but somehow, hearing it from her lips finally made it real.

"My lady," he said, sweeping a grand, if somewhat clumsy bow. Reaching for her hand, he pressed a sloppy kiss against her curled fingers.

After a few heartbeats where the world ceased to exist beyond her beautiful eyes gazing into his, she shook her head, casting a quick, self-conscious glance around the room.

"I'm not a lady," she said quietly. It was the same thing she'd told him during their first meeting, but she didn't sound flustered and playful as she had then. No, she seemed almost… sad.

It was impossible to understand why in his currently intoxicated state, but he hated the thought of her being distressed no matter what the reason might be. Seeking to reassure her, he lifted her hand to his lips again, kissing it even more tenderly than he had before.

"You'll always be a lady to me."

She leaned a little closer even as her eyes filled with worry, anxiously scanning the room again.

Why? What are you afraid of?

He'd just opened his mouth to ask when the Lady Morgana approached.

"There you are, Gwen!" she said in a light, teasing voice. "Keeping the guest of honor all to yourself over here in this dark corner? Trying to take advantage of our poor Sir Lancelot in his drunken state? Not that I'd blame you, of course..." she trailed off, her eyes drifting ever so slowly down the length of Lancelot's body before returning to his face. He shifted uncomfortably.

"My lady, I-I didn't... I wasn't..." Gwen stammered out.

Morgana laughed. "I'm only teasing. You look so lovely when you blush and stutter, you know. It's hard to resist, especially when you make it so easy."

On one hand, Lancelot agreed with Morgana. Gwen was lovely in that particular moment, all pink cheeks and wide, bewildered eyes. But he hated the fact that it was caused by her obvious discomfort.

"Will you allow me to refill your glass, my lady?" he offered with a smile, nodding at the empty goblet in Morgana's hand. It was the best option he could think of to provide a distraction and hopefully save Gwen from any further embarrassment.

Morgana flashed him a brilliant smile and tucked her arm through his. Too late, he realized his mistake.

"How very chivalrous of you, Sir Lancelot. You seem a little unsteady on your feet though. Allow me to escort you so you do not lose your way."

There was no way of avoiding it without causing a great deal of offense. Helplessly, he glanced back over his shoulder as Morgana guided him across the room, making some flirtatious comment about his armor or tabard or something. He didn't know, nor did he care.

When his eyes fell upon the corner they'd just left, Gwen was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: Seduction

"Have you seen Gwen?" Lancelot slurred as Merlin joined him at the table.

Since he'd offered to refill her goblet, Morgana had refused to let him out of her sight until that moment. First, she'd taken him around the room to introduce him to some of her favorite knights. He'd been too polite to mention that he'd already been acquainted with them earlier in the evening.

Then she'd invented a clever game. She'd point out various guests, laughingly demanding that Lancelot tell her their names. If he was correct, she had to take a drink. If not, he did. Of course, he'd gotten almost all of them wrong.

"I saw her a little while ago," Merlin replied, giving him a knowing look. "She said she was going home."

"Was she... did she...?" he trailed off, struggling to keep his thoughts straight. "Wanted to wish her good night, at least. Didn't want to..." His head seemed unbearably heavy and so he rested it on the table, peering up at Merlin through one bleary eye.

"What are you so worried about? She was tired, that's all. You'll see her tomorrow."

"Tired..." Lancelot mumbled, feeling warm and content as he closed his eyes. Yes, I'm very tired. Sleep...

Merlin laughed, slurring a little himself as he spoke. "I do believe you passed "drunk" quite some time ago, Sir Lancelot. We should get you off to bed. The celebrations have been dying down for a while anyway."

"Bed," he grunted in agreement, though he made no effort to move. What was the point, when he was perfectly comfortable right where he was sitting?

"Lancelot!" Morgana called brightly.

Good lord, did she have to be so loud? With a reluctant groan, he raised his head, wanting nothing more than to tell her he was finished for the night. No more ale, no more games, no more people...

But no, it wasn't in him to forget his courtesies, even in this shameful state. "My lady."

She smiled almost provocatively. "For your first act of service, I was hoping you'd do me the honor of escorting me to my chamber, Sir Lancelot. There's no telling who might be lurking around the castle at this hour. I'd feel much safer with one of Camelot's finest to protect me."

Merlin laughed uproariously. "Look at him… he's so drunk he can barely walk! Why don't you get one of the guards to go with you?"

Morgana gave him a cutting look. "I want Lancelot to do it."

"Well, maybe I should come along and…"

"Merlin," Morgana said firmly. She tried to soften her words with a smile, but there was steel in her voice. "Go get some sleep. Lancelot will be fine, I can promise you that. He'll be along soon enough."


Lancelot cut Merlin off this time as he rose unsteadily to his feet. "My duty," he mumbled. "Sworn knight... sworn to serve."

Despite her request, it was Morgana who escorted Lancelot through the torch lit halls, not the other way around. He leaned against her for support, unable to hide his embarrassment as he stumbled over his feet several times. Morgana seemed to enjoy the spectacle, however, giggling to herself and then teasing him mercilessly when he tripped over a stair, ending up sprawled helplessly on his back.

"Come on, Sir Lancelot," she said, laughing so hard she could barely get the words out. She helped him to his feet, encouraging him to throw one heavy arm over her shoulders.

It seemed to take forever, but at long last, they were at the door of her chamber. As she opened it and stepped inside, she turned to him with a smile.

"Thank you, Lancelot."

"Goodnight, my lady," he said slowly, executing what was meant to be a respectful bow. Instead, he very nearly lost his footing again, swaying precariously before he managed to right himself. He turned to leave, wondering how on earth he was supposed to find his way back to Merlin.

"Lancelot, wait. My dress... there's no one here to help me unfasten it and I'm afraid I can't do it myself. Would you mind assisting me?"

Even through the haze of alcohol, he knew it was a terrible idea to enter her chambers in the middle of the night. Yet how could he refuse without causing offense? Were he sober, he might have been able to think of something, perhaps. But in this state, he couldn't even begin to imagine a proper refusal.

Reluctantly, he followed her inside.

Morgana smiled to herself as she stood in front of her dressing table, pulling pins from her hair and dropping them one by one with tiny clinking sounds.

Was he watching? He must be. Men always watched when she did this, torturing them with the slowness of the task before she rewarded them by letting the ebony curls tumble down her bare back.

Peeking at him in the mirror, she expected to find him devouring her with that hungry stare she knew so well. She'd give him a coy little smile, gazing at him seductively over one shoulder, and then he would come to her then. After that...

Lancelot's eyes didn't meet hers, however. He was staring out the window.

She frowned in confusion.

In truth, that was what had intrigued her enough to bring him to her chambers in the first place. Throughout the evening, she'd noticed he didn't look at her as other men did. His eyes never followed her around the room, hot desire obvious in his stare no matter how respectful he might be in every other way.

No, he'd barely looked at her at all… and even when he had, his gaze had been mild, sometimes even friendly. But there had been nothing resembling attraction, no sign of lust in those deep brown eyes.

Briefly, Morgana had wondered if he was the type who preferred the charms of other men. There were a few among the knights, she knew, one of Camelot's most poorly guarded secrets. But that didn't seem to be it either. For men and women alike, his gaze had been kind and respectful, nothing more.

He had seemed to be staring at Merlin quite a bit as Arthur's servant had walked around the room with Gwen, but always with a great deal of affection, never with any sort of lustful intent in his eyes that she could see.

Maybe he was just more particular than most. Yes, perhaps seducing Sir Lancelot required more effort than a few batted eyelashes and flirtatious comments. A challenge? She liked the idea of that.

"Lancelot?" she whispered seductively. "My dress..."

Turning at the sound of her voice, he nodded, weaving his way unsteadily across the room. She presented him with her back, giving a noticeable shiver when his sword callused fingers brushed against the sensitive skin of her neck.

If he'd been any other man, he would've pressed himself closer at the unspoken invitation. Replacing his fingers with his lips, he would've nibbled at the curve of her neck as his hands slid down to caress her shoulders, then circled around to cup her breasts.

Instead, he just fumbled with the fastening, muttering to himself in frustration.

Maybe I need to try a little harder, she thought to herself, strangely aroused by his continued resistance. She peeked up at him over one shoulder and spoke in a low, teasing voice that was filled with promise.

"Having trouble? You could just rip it off of me, you know. I wouldn't mind."

There, let him try and resist that!

Turning to look at his face, she was taken aback when she realized he was horrified at the suggestion. Dropping his hands, he took a quick step backward, nearly tripping over his own feet in the process.

"My lady, I don't... this isn't... I should go."

It was then that she realized she'd been attempting to seduce a man who clearly didn't want to be seduced for whatever reason, which left her feeling deeply ashamed. A challenge was one thing, but Lancelot wasn't resisting in an effort to make her work for his attentions. He was drunk, obviously exhausted, and extremely uncomfortable.

"I didn't mean... I'm sorry, I was only saying that you could rip the fastening. There's no sense in you wrestling with it all night. You must be tired. Go ahead, please. Gwen can always repair it tomorrow."

Taking a cautious step closer, he reached out and ripped the fabric as gently as he could manage, immediately backing away when the task was done. A few minutes earlier, she might have let the gown fall to the floor, turning to him with a wicked smile. Instead, she clutched it modestly to her chest.

"Gwen," he repeated the name, his voice surprisingly tender. "I hope it won't be too much trouble for her to repair this, my lady."

Is he...? Without thinking, she blurted, "Lancelot, you have feelings for Gwen! That's it, isn't it?"

"Yes, my lady," he said softly, weariness and far too much ale perhaps making him more truthful than he might otherwise have been. "I do."

"That's... that's wonderful!" She gave him a huge smile.

Gwen was a sweet girl and a dear friend. so much more than merely a servant. Perhaps more than anyone, she deserved someone to love, a man who'd treat her right. If that man were Lancelot, difference in rank or not, Morgana would be entirely supportive. More than that, she'd be thrilled. Ordinarily, she might worry that someone of a higher class would have less than honorable intentions with a serving girl, but she'd already seen enough to believe that Lancelot truly cared for Gwen.

He was able to resist Morgana herself, after all, something no other man had ever managed to do. He must have quite a loyal heart.

She nearly laughed aloud, remembering how she'd teased Gwen when she'd found her in the corner with Lancelot. At the time, she'd have never imagined there was any truth to her mock suspicions.

That little sneak, she thought to herself affectionately. How long had this been going on? Meanwhile, her demure little maidservant had said nothing, just gone about her duties as usual. Oh yes, Morgana had every intention of putting her on the spot the next time she saw her.

Pulling Morgana's door closed with a soft click, Lancelot stumbled out into the hall with a sigh of relief. Everything had turned out well enough once she'd realized his affections belonged to another.

Before that though, it had been one of the most awkward situations imaginable. He was only a man, after all, not immune to the charms of a beautiful woman. The comment about ripping her dress had definitely stirred him on a physical level, and even a week ago, he wasn't sure he'd have been able to refuse such an appealing offer.

But that would've been before he'd met Gwen. Everything was different now; he had no wish to be with any other woman except her, no matter what his body had to say about it. Strangely enough, being faced with a temptation he couldn't avoid had made him even more certain of his feelings on the matter.

"Lancelot!" a voice hissed from a nearby stairwell.

"Merlin, why are you lurking out here in the dark? I thought you'd be asleep by now."

"I wanted to be sure you could find your way back. Couldn't have you passing out in the halls, after all. That would be undignified for a man of your station."

Throwing an arm around Merlin's shoulders, Lancelot allowed himself to be guided to their destination. He'd sobered up a bit during his time in Morgana's chambers. Now it was mainly weariness that had him swaying on his feet.

"Your turn for the bed tonight, Sir Lancelot," Merlin said, settling himself on the pallet on the floor with a cheeky grin.

Lancelot laughed as he undressed, choosing to discard all of his clothing except his trousers. He'd had the bed the previous night, as Merlin knew very well. It had become something of a private joke between them.

"No, Merlin, it's your turn. You might as well take the bed, because I'm not sleeping there tonight."

"Well, I'm too lazy to get up now, so I'm afraid you have no other choice."

"Oh yeah?" Lancelot shot back. "We'll see about that."

Grabbing the pillow and blanket from the bed, he settled himself on the floor beside Merlin, which brought another round of laughter from both.

"Fair enough. I know when I've been beaten. Just don't try to cuddle up to me during the night, okay? I'm not Gwen, you know."

For a moment, he considered pretending he had no idea what Merlin was talking about. But in truth, he didn't want to deny it any longer. He cared for Gwen a great deal, and anyone who was close to either of them was bound to notice, just as Morgana had done. Might as well get used to it.

He gave an exaggerated sniff. "No, you're most certainly not. Gwen doesn't stink of ale and boot polish, for one thing."

"You don't exactly smell like spring flowers yourself, Sir Lancelot," Merlin retorted with a grin. "Surprised Gwen let you near enough to be sniffing at her at all, stinking like an old sot the way you do."

"What? I don't... I wasn't sniffing at her."

Merlin raised an eyebrow at him. "Then how do you know what she smells like?"

"I just... shut up and go to sleep, Merlin."

"Fine, I will. Only because I'll need to be up bright and early to ask you all about it tomorrow."

Lancelot responded by smacking him with a pillow.

Soon enough, the room fell silent. Staring up at the ceiling as the pale light of dawn began to creep through the window, he played over the events of the night one last time in his mind, still hardly able to believe his good fortune.

"Sir Lancelot," he whispered to himself, closing his eyes with a soft sigh of satisfaction. "Knight of Camelot."

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: Reality

"Good morning!" Morgana sang out cheerfully. "Did you sleep well?"

Gwen blinked at her in surprise as she eentered the chamber. It was almost unheard of for Morgana to be up at such an early hour. She usually stayed in bed for as long as possible in the mornings, exhausted in the aftermath of nightmares that had kept her tossing and turning for most of the night.

But that certainly didn't look to be the case today – her eyes were bright and alert as she sat at her dressing table brushing her long, dark curls.

"My lady, you're... dressed."

Morgana rolled her eyes, not quite managing to hide a smile. "I can manage some things on my own, you know. Here, come help me with my hair if you would? I'd like to wear it braided today."

"Of course."

She hummed to herself as she handed over her brush, gazing dreamily at nothing in particular.

Gwen tried not to make the obvious connection between such a blissful mood and the events of the previous night. Did she and Lancelot...?

No, she wouldn't think about that. She'd promised herself she would put it from her mind and go about her duties like any other day. What did it matter, after all? There was nothing she could do to change it.

When Lancelot had clung to her hand and spoken so sweetly the night before, she'd begun to believe... believe what, she couldn't be sure. That he truly cared for her? That the new difference in their stations didn't matter? That maybe there was some future in her attraction to him?

Then Morgana had joined them and she'd had to face reality, which had taken form as a handsome knight who'd been eager to refill a glass of wine for a highborn lady. With an ache in her heart, Gwen remembered the way the pair had walked off arm in arm, both so beautiful and regal. That was Lancelot's world now, and there could be no place in it for someone like her.

"You never answered my question," Morgana said, interrupting her dismal thoughts.

"My lady?"

"When you came in, I asked if you slept well."

"Oh, sorry. Yes, well enough."

That was a lie. Afraid she'd burst into tears and shame herself, she'd made her excuses to Merlin and fled the celebrations. She hadn't gone straight home though, choosing instead to wander the streets of Camelot until nearly sunrise. For hours she'd walked, trying to force her heart to come to terms with what her mind already knew. Whatever attraction had existed had been a fleeting thing. She'd have to let go.

Another cause for her distress had been the jealousy she'd felt toward Morgana, whom she loved with all her heart. She'd never begrudged the other woman anything, not her jewels and fine silks, not her privilege or nobility… not even her alluring beauty or the fact that she had dozens of men at her beck and call.

No, she'd never envied Morgana. Not until Lancelot.

This chamber had always been comfortable, safe, and familiar. After the previous evening, however, it was the last place Gwen wanted to be. More than anything, she wished she could just go home and fall into bed... lose herself in sleep and escape all these conflicting emotions she'd never had to deal with before and didn't have the first idea how to manage.

Worried that Morgana might pick up on her melancholy mood and press her further, she gave herself a shake, resolving again to focus on the present. I have a job to do, she reminded herself firmly. That's all that matters.

"I thought I'd start with the laundry this morning, then air out your bedding," she said mildly as she retrieved a basket and began to gather discarded clothing. "Oh, and I noticed you're getting low on that jasmine soap you like so much. I'll head down to the lower town and fetch more for you."

Oh lord, what if she asks me to pick up something else for her while I'm there? She hadn't even remembered the potion until now. Oh please, I don't want to know for sure if they... She couldn't finish the thought.

Morgana said nothing, however, only smiled and nodded her thanks.

Picking up the burgundy dress from the previous night, she frowned as she examined the ripped fastening. The other woman was always damaging her gowns in one way or another. Silks were not the most practical clothing for someone so active, though she did wear them beautifully.

"Oh yes, would you mind fixing that for me when you can find the time? I had a little trouble with the fastening last night. Well," Morgana quickly amended with a small laugh. "Lancelot had trouble. What can you do? Men aren't exactly graceful with these things when they're sober. When they're drunk, they're hopeless."

It was as if someone had driven a fist into Gwen's stomach, knocking the wind out of her. She was overcome by a wave of nausea and for a moment, feared she'd be sick right where she stood.

"My lady, I..."

Morgana came closer, brows knitted in concern. "Are you feeling all right, Gwen? Was it something I said? I was just going to tell you that..."

No, I can't stand here and listen to... The room suddenly felt stifling, as if the walls were closing in around her.

Unbidden, a vivid image flashed through her mind of Lancelot ripping the fabric of that lovely dress, shaking his head at his own clumsiness as he murmured an apology. And then she saw Morgana turning in his arms, letting out a sigh of pleasure as he dipped his head to press gentle kisses along the column of her graceful white neck…

"I-I'm sorry, my lady. I have to... I need to get some air."

Without another word, she turned and fled the chamber.

"Lancelot? Wake up."

Grunting in protest, he pulled the pillow over his head. "Merlin, I'm right beside you. Is it really necessary to shout?"

"I'm not shouting, but I will if you don't get up soon. You're supposed to report to the armory to receive your cloak and uniform in just a little while. After that, you'll be meeting with Arthur along with the other knights for a briefing on the monster situation. Come on, you don't want to be late on your first day."

The other knights... my cloak and uniform. Suddenly, all the events of the previous day came rushing back. I'm a Knight of Camelot! Thrilled beyond imagining, Lancelot tossed the pillow aside and bolted upright on the pallet.

It was an action he immediately regretted. With a loud groan, he clutched his head in his hands, feeling as if a thousand tiny hammers were beating on the inside of his skull. His mouth felt thick and fuzzy, stomach churning with nausea. On any other morning, he might have fallen right back into bed and slept well into the afternoon. This was no ordinary day, however.

Forcing himself to his feet, he resolved to avoid ever becoming so intoxicated again. He felt wretched.

"Good morning, gentlemen," Gaius greeted them cheerfully as they emerged into the outer chamber, holding out two steaming cups. The vapors were giving off a foul, pungent odor; Lancelot felt his stomach give a sickening lurch and took a deep breath, resisting the urge to retch.

"Don't look at it, don't smell it," the physician said. "Just down it in one."

The concoction tasted even worse than it smelled, but he managed to choke it down somehow, unable to hide his disgust as he did so. Strangely enough, he started to feel better almost immediately. The pounding in his head subsided, his stomach settled, and he suddenly felt awake and alert.

"Better?" Gaius said with a knowing smile. "Good. Can't have you nodding off on your first day on the job, Lancelot."

"That's Sir Lancelot, if you don't mind," Merlin corrected, affecting a haughty tone.

And then from out of nowhere, a pair of guards burst through the door. Without so much as a moment to process what was happening, Lancelot was grabbed by both arms and dragged bodily from the chamber.

"Stop!" he heard Merlin cry out in alarm. "What are you doing?"

"King's orders," one of the guards replied brusquely.

Helplessly, Lancelot tried several times to turn back and tell Merlin... tell him what? Did he mean to offer some kind of reassurance that all would be well? Enough lies had been told already. No… in truth, he just wanted to see a friendly face one last time before facing the consequences of his deception.

For all he knew, he might never see Merlin again.

"Gwen!" Morgana cried. "Gwen, wait!

She cursed herself for her lack of tact as she rushed out of the chamber behind her maid. No, her friend, who obviously believed Lancelot had shared her bed the previous night… that he'd ripped her dress out of passion, not as an awkward last resort so he could retire to his own chamber immediately after.

It had been easy to assume the attraction between Gwen and Lancelot was mutual. Why wouldn't it be? He was an ideal match for her – quiet, unassuming, handsome, and sweet.

But Morgana hadn't realized how deep those feelings already went until she'd seen the color drain from her face, a terrible sick expression marring her features. It had seemed as if Gwen might be truly ill for a moment... she'd certainly appeared to be on the verge of either fainting or retching.

She'd done neither, however, only rushed from the chamber.

"Gwen!" Morgana called again as she turned a corner, becoming frantic.

And then there she was, standing frozen in the middle of the corridor with that same sick expression on her face. She seemed even more shaken than she'd been just moments before, not even acknowledging Morgana's presence. No, her eyes were fixed on something at the other end of the hall.


Lancelot. Two guards were dragging him roughly down the corridor, obviously headed for the Council Chamber.

Her mouth dropped open in shock.

"What do you think you're doing?" she called in a commanding voice, striding purposefully in their direction. "This is no way to treat a Knight of Camelot! I demand you release him at once!"

The guards stopped, turning to her with a respectful bow. "I'm sorry, my lady," one of them said in an apologetic voice. "I cannot. We're acting on the king's direct orders."

"But what has he done? I can't imagine that... "

"It is not for us to say."

Morgana looked directly at Lancelot then. He was staring beyond her to the spot where Gwen was standing with a devastated expression on his face. Casting a quick look at Morgana, his lips moved as if he desperately wanted to speak but couldn't find the words he needed.

"Tell Gwen," he finally managed to choke out. "Tell her..." He stopped and shook his head, clearly at a loss.

"I'm sorry, but the king is waiting. If you'll excuse us, my lady." The guards gave a deferential nod as they moved past her and continued on their way.

After they'd gone, she rushed back to Gwen, who was still frozen in shock.

"Don't worry," she said in what she hoped was a reassuring tone. "I'm sure there must be some mistake. Let's get you back to my room, then I'll go find out what I can. It'll be all right, I promise you."

"Of course, my lady," Gwen mumbled in a dull voice. Without another word, she allowed Morgana to put an arm around her shoulders and guide her back through the corridors.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16: Revelations

Gwen stared out the window at nothing as she awaited Morgana's return. The other woman had only been gone for a few minutes, but it already seemed like a lifetime.

Knowing why Lancelot had been arrested wasn't the issue... or was it? The first and most obvious assumption was that Uther had somehow become aware that the Seal of Nobility was a forgery.

But how? Only Merlin and I knew the truth.

And then an even more disconcerting thought occurred to her – what if Lancelot had been taken to face the king to answer for the night he'd spent here in Morgana's chambers?

Thinking of the tryst still made Gwen feel a little ill, but there were bigger things to worry about. Which crime would merit a more severe punishment – falsely impersonating a member of the nobility or bedding the king's ward?

She'd never known of a person being arrested for either, so it was impossible to say. On one hand, Uther was firm in the belief that common people should never presume to privileges beyond their rank. She'd known of servants to lose their positions for breaches of conduct as minor as forgetting to address a noble guest by their proper title.

Yes, she could imagine how Lancelot's deception would be interpreted in the king's eyes. Uther wouldn't care why he'd done it, pure intentions or otherwise. All he'd see was a violation of one of his precious codes... a rule put in place as another way to elevate nobles above all others.

But if it was the other offense, there was no reason to expect softness in that direction either, being as Uther was almost fanatically protective of his ward. Would it matter that Morgana had willingly consented to the tryst, that she might have even initiated it herself?

Probably not. In the king's mind, she was still an innocent young girl – any man who dared to share her bed would definitely be taking advantage of her from his perspective. That left little hope for mercy; Uther was a hard man who believed in harsh punishments when his idea of justice had been violated.

Gwen wanted to weep for Lancelot, hating the idea of what he must be facing at that moment. Her own memory of being dragged before the king still haunted her, how terrifying it had been to be thrown in a cold cell and nearly burned at the stake based on mere suspicion. Not even fact... suspicion.

How much worse would it be for him, being as he was guilty in either case? There'd be nothing to save him, no real culprit to be found at the last minute to prove his innocence before it was too late.

I can't watch him die. I can't…

Suddenly, her distress over him spending the night with Morgana seemed silly and selfish. That was nothing compared to this. Whatever he'd done, he'd acted as a free man, with no pledges of love or loyalty to herself or anyone else. She could hardly blame him for the way it had affected her, particularly since she'd never even admitted to having feelings for him.

No, he'd done nothing wrong. From the moment they'd met, he'd shown her nothing but kindness, gratitude, and courtesy at every turn. He'd made her feel special and appreciated… and in that moment, she knew he hadn't done those things merely out of a sense of obligation.

He'd done them because she was Gwen and he was Lancelot, and somehow, that meant something. What that something was, she couldn't be sure. But it meant something.

At long last, Morgana returned, immediately retrieving a bottle of wine and two goblets from a nearby shelf. Seating herself on the bed, she filled both glasses with the rich, red liquid.

When she finally spoke, her voice was soft and somber.

"Come here. Let's talk."

With a sinking feeling, Gwen joined her on the bed. "My lady?"

Morgana let out a heavy sigh before she started. "It seems that Lancelot obtained a forged seal and used it to pass himself off as a noble in order to try out for the Knights. You may not be aware of this, but the First Code of Camelot states that only those of noble blood may serve."

"I know."

"About the code itself? Or did you know Lancelot wasn't really a noble?"

Gwen took a long drink. She wanted to trust Morgana with the truth, knowing the other woman often objected to the king's rigid policies. Perhaps she might even be able to help Lancelot if she understood the reasons behind his deception. Until being certain of where she stood on the subject, however, Gwen wasn't willing to take that risk.

"About the code, of course," she said as lightly as she could manage. "I have lived in Camelot all my life, you know."

"Of course you have," Morgana responded in an apologetic voice. "Forgive me. It's just Uther has so many ridiculous codes and policies, even I can't keep them straight half the time."

"Do you think the king is being… a little harsh?"

"Not that it's anything new, but yes. If a man has the skill to qualify, why shouldn't he be allowed to fight to defend Camelot? It's his home as well, isn't it? Besides, more men being granted the opportunity to serve would create a stronger kingdom for all of us. Uther is blind if he can't see that."

Gwen nodded in agreement, relieved that Morgana opposed the policy and didn't seem to judge Lancelot for his actions either. Perhaps she might be willing to intercede on his behalf? There was a chance Uther might actually listen to her.

"Lancelot... is he...? How will he be punished?"

"That I don't know. He was taken to the dungeon to await final judgment. Everyone's so distracted with this monster situation. But Gwen, maybe that's for the best. It'll buy him some time; Uther is more likely to go easier on him once his temper has cooled."

It made Gwen's heart ache to think of Lancelot locked up in one of the dismal cells beneath the castle. She knew from experience how lonely and frightening it was down there, with nothing to do except wait to live or die.

Poor Lancelot... he should be out on the training grounds this morning, laughing and sparring with the other knights. After all, he was every bit as worthy of the title as they were, no matter what the king said. He was a knight in his soul, and that wasn't something Uther could give or take away at will.

At that thought, her eyes filled with tears. Only the previous night, he'd been so happy... not due to the privilege involved in his new title, but simply for the honor of being permitted to serve. The dream he'd fought to achieve had been a noble one – the desire to defend the kingdom and protect the innocent. How could anyone find fault with that, much less throw him in a dungeon cell like a common criminal?

"You'll always be a lady to me."

And you'll always be a knight to me, Sir Lancelot.

Morgana laid a gentle hand on her arm, disrupting her reverie. "I'll speak to Arthur myself as soon as I can, and Uther as well if it comes to that. I know Lancelot means a great deal to you."

Gwen looked at her in surprise. "My lady, I…"

"You what? Thought I wouldn't notice? I wish I could credit myself for being exceptionally observant but really, Gwen, a blind man could see it."

She shifted uncomfortably. How much did Morgana know? Was this a realization she'd come to only this morning? Or had she already been aware of it the night before, choosing to pursue Lancelot anyway? No, Gwen told herself with a sharp stab of guilt for even considering the possibility. Morgana would never do that.

"I need to talk to you about what happened last night. I didn't... what I mean is, we didn't..."

Gwen closed her eyes and sighed. "Please don't. I'm not upset with you, but I really don't want to…"

"Nothing happened, Gwen," Morgana said, surprising her with a laugh. "So what is it exactly that you'd rather not talk about? The way Lancelot couldn't take his eyes off you for most of the evening? The fact that he only put up with me out of politeness? Or how about when he stood right here in this chamber and turned me down when I tried to have my way with him?"

Her eyes widened in disbelief. "So you didn't...?"

"No… and believe me, I tried. That was before I knew about you, of course. I'm sorry."

"You don't have to apologize," Gwen said, relaxing somewhat. There was one thing still troubling her, however, a last detail that didn't quite fit. "But the dress..."

Morgana chuckled, explaining how Lancelot had ripped the fastening out of necessity, backing away the moment it was done. "It was like I was contagious or something. If it had been any other situation, I would've been deeply offended. But his heart is loyal to you, Gwen. There's no fault in that."

"But how can you be sure? We've only known each other..."

"I know because he told me. He stood right here and admitted it."

Gwen felt a little breathless. "What... what did he say?"

"I can't recall his words exactly," Morgana said in a thoughtful voice. "We were both intoxicated at the time, of course. But he made it perfectly clear that he cares a great deal for you. You mustn't be angry with him… for telling me, I mean. I'm sure he would've shown more discretion if he hadn't been so drunk."

Angry? How could she possibly be angry over the idea of Lancelot having feelings for her, whether he kept it a closely guarded secret or shouted it from the rooftops of Camelot?

"Oh, no, my lady. I'm not. Of course not. It's just... I can hardly believe..."

"What? That someone might be infatuated with you? You're a lovely person, Gwen. It was bound to happen sooner or later. And regardless of this unfortunate situation with the seal, I think Lancelot is very worthy of your affections."

"Thank you, my lady," she murmured, not knowing what else to say just then. It was all so unreal, and yet in another way, the most real thing she'd ever felt in her life. She'd tried to convince herself it was all in her head... why? Deep down, she knew that wasn't the case. She'd known it all along.

"What I want to know is when this happened," Morgana said happily, interrupting her thoughts. "How this happened. And I definitely want to know how much has happened. You have to tell me everything, Gwen."

Morgana was nosy by nature, especially when it came to matters of romance. But in truth, Gwen was eager to talk about her feelings for Lancelot, to hear someone else's insights on the subject. That was a surprise... she was used to keeping most things that left her feeling vulnerable to herself.

Somehow she managed to provide an overview of the previous few days, while leaving out anything involving the deception or the fact that she'd known about it all along. She wasn't ready to own up to that, being as it was Lancelot and Merlin's secret as much as her own. Instead, she talked about the conversations they'd had, how sweet he'd been, followed by the way he'd kissed her hand on several occasions.

"Your hand?" The other woman grinned, giving her a look that could almost be described as a leer. "Has he kissed you anywhere else yet?"

"Morgana!" She blushed deeply. "It isn't... I've only known him for a few days."

"So? From everything you've told me, you can hardly keep your hands off each other. What's stopping you?"

Gwen struggled to find a proper explanation. How to make Morgana understand? She'd never been one to worry over the outcome when it came to pursuing something she wanted. No, she gave herself over to anything that stirred her emotions, body and soul. She was all fiery passion and restless energy, which was one of the things Gwen admired most about her. But how to describe fear to the fearless?

"I... this is all so new to me. I just assumed that if it was meant to become something real, everything else would happen when the time was right. I just… I suppose I don't want to do anything that might spoil it."

Gwen expected to receive a teasing remark in response. Instead, the other woman looked curiously sad.

"Gwen, there's no such thing as a right time. You have to take what you can while you have the chance. There's no way of knowing if you'll ever be given another."

Frowning, she puzzled over that, but no further explanation was offered.

"Come," Morgana said abruptly, striding across the chamber to her dressing table. "It's well past noon already. You'll want to get started on that laundry, and I'll go see if I can speak with Arthur."

Chapter Text

Chapter 17: Consequences

"You're not worthy of the knighthood bestowed upon you."

King Uther's harsh words echoed in Lancelot's mind, the way they had countless times since he'd been locked away in the dungeons. Hours later, and they hurt just as much as they had the moment they'd first been uttered. Perhaps more, now that they'd had time to sink in.

"You never were."

Lancelot stared at the ugly gray walls of his cell, replaying the terrible scene over and over in his mind. Prostrate on his knees before the entire court, it hadn't been the unyielding expression on Uther's face that had devastated him so much. No... it had been the sad disappointment he'd found in Arthur's open, honest features that had brought tears to his eyes.

"And you never will be."

The king might have officially bestowed his former knighthood, but it was Arthur who'd offered Lancelot a chance to prove himself… Arthur who had been hard, yet exceptionally fair when dealing with an unknown recruit.

It was Arthur who'd given Lancelot those precious few seconds to recover his balance when he'd swung wide and missed. And it was Arthur who'd thrown a friendly arm around his shoulders, talked with him, drank with him, treated him like a brother throughout the previous night's celebrations.

And I lied to him, Lancelot thought with a great deal of remorse. All the while, I was lying to him.

Worse, he'd allowed others to participate in such a lie.

Indeed, Merlin was not to blame. His motivations had been selfless and honorable, only meant to help a friend who'd found himself in an impossible situation. Both Merlin and Gwen had helped him simply out of kindness, no questions asked and expecting nothing in return.

No, they were entirely innocent. Only Lancelot himself was to blame.

He'd chosen to believe that deception was necessary to correct a terrible injustice, but deep down, he'd been driven by selfishness. Merlin felt guilty for pushing him, but he would've never gone along with it if he'd made honor a priority over his own ambition. No, he'd been all too willing to ignore his better judgment to get what he wanted.

And what of Gwen? Sweet, beautiful, trusting Gwen?

Vividly, Lancelot remembered her reaction as he'd been dragged through the corridors to face the king. She hadn't looked at him the way Merlin had, shocked and angry on his behalf. No... she'd stared at him in disgust, like the mere sight of him made her physically ill.

Why, when she'd known about the deception all along, just as Merlin had? Was it that she'd finally allowed herself to recognize how dishonorable it had truly been? Did she hate him for making her a part of it?

He couldn't blame her if she did.

As soon as he'd found out about the code, the right thing to do would've been to put the thought of becoming a Knight of Camelot from his mind. He should've looked for another way to earn a living, rather than being so determined to have what he wanted that he'd been willing to sacrifice any sense of honor to get it. If it had been his destiny to become a knight, it would've happened someday… why couldn't he have just accepted that?

He'd been so selfish, willing to deceive and allow those he cared about to lie on his behalf. Perhaps he'd questioned it briefly, but had he ever really thought about the consequences? Not for himself… no, he'd done a shameful thing and was more than willing to accept the appropriate punishment.

But what about the risk he'd taken where others were concerned? In all of this, it was a great mercy that the king was unaware of Merlin and Gwen's participation in his deception. Lancelot had been questioned by the guards, swearing up and down that no one had assisted him at any time.

No, he hadn't considered the future at all. He'd needed the seal to get his foot in the door, never thinking about the days, months, and then the years that would've followed if he'd earned his place among the knights and the truth had never been discovered.

It had been easy to forget when he'd been lost in a haze of ale and euphoria, overwhelmed by the triumph of fulfilling his dream. But how could he have lived his whole life based on a lie?

Not only had he been incredibly selfish, he'd been a fool. Had he respected the rules and waited for a better opportunity, who knew what might have been possible someday? But now? His name would always be marked with shame and dishonor.

I only wanted to serve. My actions were selfish and misguided, but I didn't mean any harm. Truly, I didn't. I just wish there was a way I might be able to…

But then his troubled thoughts were interrupted by the sound of terrified screams, muffled by the thick walls around him. A succession of shrieks filled the air, barely audible at first, swiftly growing louder as the monster approached.

"What's happening?" he cried out in helpless frustration.

There was no reply.

Huddled in the dim space beneath the seller's booth, Gwen exchanged anxious glances with the woman beside her. She'd thought there could be nothing more frightening than the deafening screeches and fearful screams that had filled the air just moments before, but she'd been wrong. The awful stillness in the aftermath of the attack was so much worse.

She'd tried to emerge several times to see what was happening, but the other woman would always grab her arm, clinging to her fearfully as she begged her not to go.

"Is it gone?"

"I don't know," Gwen whispered back. She did her best to sound soothing, though she was more than a little shaken herself. "If you'd just let me go out and see..."

"No!" the woman cried in a panicked voice, clutching her arm painfully. "You mustn't! What if it comes back?"

She sighed, frustration finally overpowering her fear. All she wanted to do was get back to the palace after a quick stop to check on her father. More important than her own safety even, she wanted to be sure that Merlin was safe. Morgana would be somewhere in the palace, of course, but lord only knew where Arthur's servant was at any given time.

For a moment, she was almost glad Lancelot was locked away in the dungeon. At least where the monster was concerned, he was in the safest place he could possibly be.

"Really, I must go," she said much more firmly, doing her best to be gentle as she disentangled herself.

She felt a great deal of relief as she emerged to find the woman's husband searching anxiously for his wife. Pointing him in the right direction, she turned and walked swiftly toward the palace. The sound of iron hammering metal had just resumed on the next street over, letting her know her father was unharmed.

Always working. Gwen smiled to herself as she hurried along. Camelot could probably burn down around him and he'd barely notice.

Chaos was everywhere – abandoned carts, overturned booths, dropped possessions, and forgotten merchandise littering the ground, causing her to stumble on several occasions. Guards in red cloaks filled the streets, shouting commands and struggling to bring order to the still frantic crowd.

"Return to your homes and lock your doors!" one called in a calm voice. "The knights are working to bring this menace under control. Stay indoors until they do and you'll be perfectly safe."

"Make your way home immediately!" another shouted, much less comforting than the first. "Camelot is under curfew. No one is to be out on the streets! King's orders!"

Ducking her head, she tried to hurry past the confusion. The palace was some distance away; she desperately hoped she'd be able to reach it without attracting the guards' notice. Her errand to the lower town had been her final duty for the afternoon, but she needed to find Morgana.

Yes, Morgana would know what strategies were being put in place to defeat the monster... the way she always seemed to know what went on in the Council Chamber. Beyond that, Gwen hadn't even seen her since she'd gone to speak with Arthur, anxious to find out if anything had come of their conversation.

She wanted to make sure that Merlin was safe, as well as Gaius, who was often out and about seeing to his patients during the afternoons.

But most of all, she wanted to see Lancelot. It was impossible to say whether the guards would even let her visit him down in the dungeon, but she had to try. Ever since her conversation with Morgana, she'd longed to go to him and offer what comfort she could. He had to be feeling so alone...

"You must return to your home," a guard abruptly commanded, halting her progress. "You're the blacksmith's daughter, aren't you? Come, I'll escort you."

"No! I'm also the Lady Morgana's maid. She'll be expecting me. Please, I need to..."

"Everyone in the palace will be well aware of the curfew," he responded, guiding her in the opposite direction from the only place she desperately wanted to be. "Your mistress will understand. King's orders, girl. I'm sorry."

For a moment, she was tempted to break free of his grasp. Even if she'd been able to outrun this one, however, there'd no doubt be dozens of other guards ready to prevent her from reaching her destination. With a resigned sigh, she allowed herself to be ushered home.

The sun was just beginning to set over Camelot; dismally, she realized it was highly unlikely that she'd be going anywhere until at least the following morning. All there was to do now was sit alone in her silent home and wait. Wait and worry.

"My lady," Lancelot said with a deferential bow, even as he wondered why Morgana had taken it upon herself to come down to the cells. Maybe she wanted to express her own displeasure over the deception? It would certainly be understandable. He'd lied to her, too.

"Lancelot," she replied in an even tone that gave nothing away.

"I'm sorry…"

"I didn't come down here for an apology. I came to ask why you did it."

With a sigh of defeat, he lowered his head as he began to speak in a soft, halting voice.

He told her everything, starting with the terrible day raiders had attacked his village, changing his life forever. Much of it was painful, particularly now in the face of his dishonor, but he told her nonetheless. He gave her the truth... which was the least she deserved in light of what he'd done.

As he spoke, his voice became stronger and more impassioned. He went through the years of rigorous preparation, his journey here to Camelot and how devastated he'd been to learn about the First Code... that all his training had been for nothing.

"What I did was wrong. Terribly wrong," he whispered brokenly. "But I only wished to serve. Truly, my lady, I didn't mean any harm. All I ever wanted was..."

Morgana said nothing as he trailed off into silence.

"I'm sorry..." he tried again.

"Lancelot, stop. Please. You had honorable intentions… there's no need to apologize for that."

When he finally dared to raise his head, the eyes staring back at him were gentle and brimming with sympathy.

It didn't surprise him that Gwen and Merlin had felt for his plight. They lived the lives of common people themselves, after all, understanding the limitations that came along with that territory. But Morgana? She was of royal blood – daughter to the king and sister to the prince in all but name. Practically a Pendragon... and it had been Pendragon laws he'd violated.

Morgana cast a quick glance over her shoulder, waiting until two passing guards were out of earshot.

"I care about Uther, but that doesn't mean I believe all his laws are just. He's a hard, stubborn man who often persecutes people unfairly. He doesn't see that everyone should have the right to live as they wish to live, as long as they're not causing harm to others. All he sees are codes, laws, and offenses... and many good people are made to suffer in the process. People just like yourself."

Lancelot was at a loss for words. All those years back in his village, he'd imagined Uther to be a king who was wise and just… a king who was a king because he was set above the people he ruled. Lancelot had believed him, and particularly his son, to be the personification of all that was right and good.

Before he'd come here, he would've never dared to question Uther's judgment. No, he'd never thought of him simply as a man, as capable of flaws and shortcomings as any other.

Morgana laughed as she stared at him in amazement.

"What? Did you think all of us of noble blood were alike? Perfect?" she snorted. "I suppose it makes sense. I imagine the common people wouldn't allow the nobility the power they do if they ever realized we're no better than they are."

Suddenly, Lancelot saw Uther from an entirely different perspective. He might have been wrong in his actions, but the king hadn't merely stripped away his knighthood and enacted an appropriate punishment. He'd gone out of his way to humble and humiliate him in front of the entire court. Was there any honor in treating a man like that? Using power to strip him of every shred of dignity?

Morgana seemed to guess the direction of his thoughts. "The code is unfair. It's as simple as that. As I told Gwen earlier, why should you not be allowed to serve like anyone else? Camelot is home to us all. What kind of king has the right to tell a man he cannot defend it at the level appropriate to his skill? It's absurd. I don't blame you for what you did. In fact, I admire you."

"Thank you, my lady," he murmured, greatly comforted by her words. "Gwen... is she... does she hate me? The way she looked at me earlier in the hall..."

Morgana laughed merrily. "I was wondering when you were going to bring her up. Of course she doesn't hate you. She was feeling ill before she even saw you, and I'm sure the shock didn't help. Poor thing. I thought she was about to retch when she left my chamber so suddenly."

He frowned, concern overriding his relief. "Is she all right? Where is she now? Has Gaius seen to her?"

"Calm down, Lancelot. She's fine, just had a little too much to drink last night like the rest of us. It was a momentary thing. As for where she is now, she was in the lower town when the monster attacked."

She paused as Lancelot started to interrupt her, holding up a hand to ward off his anxious questions.

"Before you say anything, she's fine. I received word from the guard who escorted her home just a little while ago. Uther has Camelot under curfew, so it's unlikely she'll be able to return to the palace tonight. Otherwise, I'm sure she would've already been down to see you."

A guard approached just then, bowing respectfully to Morgana. "Mealtime for the prisoner, my lady. My apologies, but the hour is growing late and the king doesn't like visitors down here after dark."

"Of course," she responded, giving him an appealing smile. "Please, if you could just give me one more minute to speak with the prisoner? I promise it will not be long."

The guard nodded and backed away, looking a little dazed. Morgana smirked at him, then turned back to Lancelot.

"Don't lose hope," she whispered. "I haven't had a chance to speak with Arthur yet, but I already suspect he doesn't agree with Uther on this. He doesn't speak up as often as he should, but he's a very different man from his father. Stay strong, Lancelot. All may yet be well."

"Thank you, my lady," he said softly as she turned to go. "For everything."

Chapter Text

Chapter 18: Loyalty

Not long after Morgana departed, Lancelot received another visitor. Arthur didn't come quietly as she had, however. He stormed into the cell, blue eyes blazing with fury.

"I should've known. How could I have been so stupid? You don't sound like a knight, you don't even look like a knight!"

"I'm sorry," he mumbled. What else was there to say?

"I'm sorry, too, because you fight like a knight," when Arthur spoke these words, the anger was suddenly gone. In his voice instead was something Lancelot had never expected to hear there again. Respect.

He looked up in surprise.

"And I need... Camelot needs..."

Deceptions, imprisonments, fake seals, and dishonor? Suddenly, none of that mattered. This was one warrior speaking to another, in a language that only those who were born to fight could understand.

Arthur recognizes that in me. He isn't like his father, willing to discredit me over a simple breach of code. He sees who I really am and knows I have worth, noble or not.

The thought filled a tiny place in Lancelot's heart that had lain hollow since his shame had been discovered. No... in truth, that feeling had been there since he'd decided to impersonate a noble. It was something inside him that had despised the idea of having to pretend to be something he wasn't, stung by the realization that he'd never be enough as himself no matter how skilled he might be in the art of combat.

"The creature?" he said, taking a purposeful step closer.

"We could not kill it. I've never faced its like."

"I faced it myself, sire. Some days past. I struck it full square. I wondered how it endured."

"There are those that believe this… Griffin, is a creature of magic, that only magic can destroy it."

"Do you believe this?" he asked. It would certainly make sense.

"It doesn't matter what I believe," Arthur said in a resigned voice. "The use of magic is not permitted. The knights must prevail with steel and sinew alone."

Uther's hatred of magic was no secret, even to otherwise uninformed peasants in the most remote villages. He'd driven it from the land right around the time of Lancelot's birth, and ever since, it was known far and wide that he dealt with all who dared to practice sorcery without a shred of mercy.

In the past, Lancelot had always assumed magic must be a terrible thing if the king found it necessary to deal with it so decisively. But perhaps Uther was wrong about this as well? After all, the sword was a dangerous weapon, yet it could be used for good as well as evil… could magic really be so different?

"Sire," Lancelot said, pushing his thoughts aside as he waited for further instructions.

"There's a horse waiting outside."

"Thank you," he said gratefully. "Thank you, sire."

"Lancelot, take it and never return to this place," Arthur's voice was suddenly stern and cold.

Banished? The thought was like a knife to the heart.

"No. No, please," he begged aloud, too desperate to restrain himself. "It's not my freedom I seek. I only wish to serve with honor."

"I know," Arthur said quietly.

"Then let me ride with you, sire."

Damn your father! he thought with unaccustomed vehemence. To hell with codes and rules and titles! You know I'm worthy of this, I saw it in your eyes! You want me at your side when you face this creature. I know you do!

"I cannot. My father knows nothing of this. I release you myself, but I can do no more. Now go, before I change my mind."

He hesitated, wanting to say something, anything, that might sway the other man. A dozen protests bubbled up in his throat – pleas, promises, pledges of undying fealty. But in the end, perhaps it wasn't fair to make this more difficult than it had to be. Arthur was already doing everything he could, and far more than Lancelot deserved after lying to him.

Who am I to ask him to defy the king on my behalf? His own father?

... even though the king was wrong.

Lancelot didn't deny the thought, scolding himself for the disloyalty as he'd done a few days before. Because, well, it was true.

No one stopped him as he made his way up the stairs and through the corridors that led to the street outside. The horse was there, just as Arthur had promised, but that wasn't the surprising part. Having spent so many hours mucking out the stables, Lancelot knew very well that the beautiful white steed was one of the best... the type of horse only a knight might be permitted to ride.

Arthur had been giving him permission all along, proven by the fact that this wasn't a regular traveling mount. No, this was a war horse!

He couldn't receive instruction with the knights, nor could he ride with them when they set forth to face the Griffin. No, Arthur couldn't openly defy the king by allowing anything like that. And yet he'd devised a way to grant him what he wanted most of all – a chance to redeem himself in the face of his shame.

If it was his fate to die tonight, then his life would be a worthy sacrifice given in service to Camelot. If it was his destiny to survive? He'd win respect for his courageous act. Either way, none of Uther's judgments would ever change the fact that his honor would be restored.

At heart, Arthur was a soldier, one who understood that he'd prefer death in battle to a life lived in exile and shame. He'd set him free, knowing exactly what the result of that freedom would be.

For years, Lancelot had idolized the legendary Prince Arthur based on the wild tales and heroic deeds he'd heard about in his remote village tavern. He'd grown up imagining nobles to be more divine than human, possessing greater wisdom, goodness, and compassion than all others.

What a foolish thing to believe.

Morgana had been right – even those of royal blood were human, with flaws and virtues just like anyone else. One might be born to a noble privilege, but it was upon them to decide whether to use that power for good or ill.

Lancelot had come to Camelot to earn the right to serve, never realizing it would be up to him to decide whether a man, king or otherwise, was even worthy of his service to begin with. A week ago, such a thought would've seemed arrogant beyond belief. Now? He knew it for truth.

The king had disappointed his expectations, while the prince had exceeded them. Arthur had shown him wisdom, kindness, compassion, and fair judgment, both as a son of the house of Northumbria and as a commoner. He'd seen value in him that had nothing to do with titles, making Lancelot wish he could've gotten to know him better in return... not as a commander, but just as a man.

Strange as it seemed, he had the feeling they could've been good friends.

Lancelot reached Gwen's house just then, knocking and entering without waiting for a response. It wasn't as courteous as he might've preferred, nor was coming to ask her for yet another favor when she'd already done so much for him. Alas, he had no other choice.

Gwen had on the dress she'd been wearing when they'd first met, seeming even lovelier now than when he'd first laid eyes on her. Had that really been only a week ago? It was hard to remember a time when she hadn't been an important part of his life.

"Lancelot, what are you doing here?" She looked startled, though not unhappy to see him.

"I have no time to explain. I need weapons, armor, the best you've got."

"What's this all about?"

"Arthur stands in mortal peril," he explained as briefly as he could manage. "I must do what I can to protect him. It's my duty. Knight or not."

"You really believe that, don't you?"

"Yes, my lady."

"Lancelot, I don't believe I've ever met anyone like you before," she said softly. There was something in her face... some emotion he couldn't quite put his finger on. Was it admiration? Something more than that? He didn't know, but wished he could stay right where he was long enough to figure it out.

But of course, there was precious little time, fleeting moments that were swiftly draining away as he struggled to find the words he needed. This might be his last chance to tell her how he truly felt, but how to explain how much she'd come to mean to him? It seemed too big for words.

"Guinevere," he started. "If I should not return..."

"Don't go, Lancelot. Please."

There was a vulnerability he'd never seen in her face before – anxiety, longing, regret, along with what seemed like a dozen other emotions reflected back at him, all begging him not to leave. Under any other circumstances, there'd be no question – he'd stay forever if she asked it of him.

But not now... not like this. He could have no place in the world as a man of shame and dishonor, unworthy of everything that meant anything to him. Regrettably, he didn't have the time to make her understand that.

"But go I must," was all he said aloud.

She nodded in what seemed like resignation, gazing up at him with sweet, vulnerable eyes... eyes he'd already come to adore above all other things. If I die tonight, let the memory of those eyes be the last thing I ever see, he thought wistfully. Let my final thoughts be of her.

Gwen wasn't sure how it happened. One minute, Lancelot was staring down at her, his expression intense and filled with longing. The next, she was in his arms.

With her head resting comfortably against his chest, she could feel his heartbeat, strong and steady against her cheek. His hands caressed her back as she clung to him, his touch soothing away all her worries and fears, if only for a moment. It was as if all the feelings she had for him, so many emotions she didn't even understand, could be answered in a simple embrace.

He held her close, burying his face against the side of her neck and inhaling deeply, as if memorizing her scent. She followed his lead, nuzzling his chest and smelling clean perspiration, the faint odor of soap, along with something else that was strongly masculine and uniquely him. Unable to help herself, she let out a soft sigh of pleasure.

Feeling his heartbeat quicken at the sound, she pulled back and looked up into his face. The dark eyes staring down at her were suddenly hot, hungry, filled with unmistakable longing, nearly making her gasp in response.

It was the same look he'd given her in Gaius's chamber, the one that had been responsible for her abrupt withdrawal. She felt a similar confusion now, desperately wanting to hurl herself into the unknown, yet terrified to do so, somehow knowing she'd never be the same.

He's going to kiss me...

But then the spell was broken by the sound of dozens of horses passing outside, hooves clattering loudly on the paved cobblestones. She heard Arthur shouting commands as the knights rode by, instructing them to keep their shields in place and to aim for vulnerable spots.

"Do not hesitate for a second!" he cried, sounding completely confident. "We will bring this creature down, whatever the cost."

Turning her face from the window, Gwen looked up at Lancelot again. Expecting him to have been distracted by Arthur and the knights, she was surprised to discover that the intensity in his gaze hadn't changed. If she stayed here in his arms...

Pulling away, she cursed herself as she did so. But it was too much... how could she let herself feel so vulnerable when she might not ever see him again? If she left her heart open, allowed him to kiss her, how could she watch him walk out the door into mortal danger?

"Come," she said as lightly as she could manage. "I'll help you with your armor."

Chapter Text

Chapter 19: The Magical Moment

Gwen left Lancelot alone to change out of his stained shirt and trousers, telling him he couldn't ride out to fight in filthy clothes. It was a silly concern and they both knew it; in all likelihood, whatever he happened to be wearing would be soaked with blood before the night was over.

He did as she asked, however, pulling on the spare clothes she'd made for him when she'd sewn his knight's regalia just a few nights before.

It was far easier for her to pretend everything was normal, he realized. Better to imagine he was only going down to the training grounds to spar with Arthur or riding out on a routine patrol. The idea of him setting forth to face a deadly monster that would probably end his life... she wasn't ready to accept it.

He wasn't frightened for himself, but he hated to imagine how difficult this would be for her… particularly if the worst should happen. Would she weep for him if he never returned? It was terrible to realize he'd be the cause of her grief if she did, beyond any ability to comfort her tears.

This is the only way, he told himself again with grim determination.  I have no other choice.

"That's better," she said with a smile as he emerged, her arms filled with mail and plate that she deposited on the table. "I hope you don't mind wearing the same armor as before. It fits you so well, after all, and there isn't time..."

"Of course not. Thank you. But… well, it's very fine and you might not get it back."

"Lancelot," she said softly as she helped him adjust his cowl. "This armor belongs to you. I can't imagine allowing anyone else to wear it."

Moved by the gift, he felt a lump in his throat as he nodded in appreciation.

Buckles were fastened, weapons equipped, boots and gloves slipped on, and it was done... no more excuses to linger and no time for it either. He walked to the door and pulled it open, turning to face her as she handed him his helmet.

"Gwen..." He drank in the sight of her, making the most of what might be his final chance to do so. There was so much emotion in her eyes, so fathomless he could have easily lost himself in their depths, forgetting all about what he had to do. But no, this final attempt to restore his honor was for her sake as much as his own.

Reaching up to caress her face with gloved fingers, he sucked in a deep breath as she closed her eyes and raised a hand to cover his.

"Guinevere, I wanted to say..."

"I know," she whispered. "Me too."

The need to kiss her was suddenly so urgent, Lancelot could scarcely fight it. How much he wanted to cover those beautiful lips with his own, to show her all the things he couldn't seem to put into words. Just one kiss, and he could die a happy man.

No. She'd withdrawn only a few minutes before when she'd sensed his intention, making it clear that she still wasn't ready. Why? It was a mystery he didn't have time to figure out, and in the end, made little difference anyway. Regardless of his own need, he could never push for anything that wasn't freely given. No, not even if this was meant to be their final goodbye.

"Farewell, my lady," he whispered, raising her hand to his lips one last time.

Struggling to sort out her tangled emotions, Gwen could only stare at the empty space Lancelot had filled so completely just minutes before.

He'd wanted to kiss her, she realized, remembering the way his eyes had burned down into hers. Yes, the desperation had been too obvious to miss, and yet he'd resisted the urge, not willing to push her if she wasn't ready. Even while knowing he might easily die tonight…

As if from out of nowhere, Morgana's words came back to her, even as she admitted to herself that her hesitancy, the lingering fear of the unknown, was nothing compared to the way she'd feel if she never saw him again.

"Gwen, there's no such thing as a right time. You have to take what you can while you have the chance. There's no way of knowing if you'll ever be given another."

And then all further thought fled her mind as she raced after him, terrified he might've already mounted and ridden off... that her moment of clarity had come too late.

No, there he was, only just now reaching his horse. She called his name and he turned to face her, so fine, brave and strong, clad from head to toe in armor that shimmered in the moonlight. Was there ever a man so beautiful? she wondered wistfully as she came closer.

"Lancelot," she said again breathlessly, practically hurling herself into his arms when she reached him. He caught her as she'd known he would, pulling her close and whispering her name as he buried his face in her hair.

"Gwen, I don't want to leave you. Truly, I don't. But…"

"I know," she said, lifting her head and raising her eyes to his. "I just couldn't let you go without..."

And with a boldness she'd never known she was capable of, she slid her fingers into the soft hair at the back of his neck, urging his mouth down to meet hers.

His grunt of surprise quickly turned into a groan of pleasure, lips soft yet firm as they treated her own to a succession of kisses that were far more tender than she could have ever imagined. Shivers skittered up her spine, smoothed away by the strong hands that gently caressed her back.

She let out a little moan, pressing herself closer as he whispered her name, his warm breath mingling with hers. "Gwen..."

And then it was his tongue she felt, teasing ever so gently along the seam of her slightly parted lips, begging access to deeper pleasures she wasn't yet aware of. Her mouth opened under his, more by instinct than conscious choice.

She clung to him helplessly as she submitted to his gentle exploration, overwhelmed by the intensity of his slow, deep kisses. And then timid and unsure, yet hungry for him, she began to mimic the movements, her own tongue delving, swirling and caressing in a rhythm that was strange at first, but soon became the most natural, utterly delicious feeling in the world.

Groaning low in his throat, Lancelot pulled her closer as he deepened the kiss. Gwen felt her legs begin to quiver as her fingers tangled restlessly in his hair, dropping to trail across the hard muscles of his back as he lifted his hands to cup her face.

Being close to him this way was an exquisite pleasure, the sweetest satisfaction and the most insatiable craving all at the same time. The tighter he held her, the deeper and more urgent his kisses became, the more the hunger inside of her seemed to grow. She wanted... she didn't know how to describe it. Just… more.

But then the seemingly peaceful night was disrupted by a series of piercing screeches in the distance, followed by the faint shouts of knights, their words indistinguishable.

With a shuddering sigh, Lancelot broke the kiss and pulled away. After putting a little distance between them, he remained frozen for a few heartbeats, panting heavily as he stared at her with a hunger that somehow eclipsed all the previous longing she'd seen in his eyes. For a moment, she was almost certain he'd reach out and pull her into his arms again.

Instead, he clenched his hands into fists, squeezing his eyes shut as if struggling for control. When he opened them again, he was staring beyond her.

"Go," he said in a hoarse voice. "Get to the palace. If we cannot defeat this creature, it will attack the city again. Whatever happens, stay inside until the danger has passed."

With nothing more than a nod of agreement, she turned and walked swiftly toward the Citadel, breaking into a run as soon as she was out of sight. She had to get to Merlin.

"Merlin!" she gasped only a few minutes later, bursting into Gaius's chamber without warning. "Lancelot's riding out to kill the Griffin!"

"He's what?" But before she could manage a proper explanation, he was already racing out the door.

Lancelot was saddling his horse when Merlin found him, anxious to make their farewells quick so he could be on his way. He'd already endured his share of painful goodbyes when he'd had to let go of Gwen not once, but twice. Come what may, his thoughts were firmly fixed on duty now, which lay beyond the city walls. There wasn't another second to spare.

"I'm coming with you," Merlin said, blue eyes filled with determination.

"No, you're not," he responded shortly. Whatever this madness was, he didn't have time for it.

"Just try and stop me."

And then he couldn't help remembering the way Merlin had scrambled helplessly in the face of the Griffin, shaking in fear and tripping over his own feet without so much as a hand raised in his own defense. Had Lancelot not come along just at that moment, he would've been slaughtered like a helpless animal.

"Merlin," he said, practically growling in frustration. "You're not a soldier!"

It's my duty to fight for people like you, he thought in silent frustration. What use am I if you're determined to go rushing into danger with no way to defend yourself? You won't stand a chance, and I don't know if I'll be able to protect you this time.

"You said it yourself, Lancelot – Arthur needs all the help he can get. Now let's go."

Unfortunately, there was no time to argue. Perhaps if he were a harder man, he might have knocked the other man unconscious with the hilt of his sword, forcing him to remain behind. He didn't have it in him to raise a hand against a friend, however, not even with the best of intentions.

Instead, he only nodded in resignation.

Merlin raced away without a word, returning almost immediately with what appeared to be a battle lance. Fumbling awkwardly, he struggled to maintain his grip as it wavered in the air between them.

Lancelot tried to swallow a laugh, not entirely succeeding. "Merlin, please don't tell me you mean to use that."

"Of course not. This is for you."

Accepting it with an interested grunt, Lancelot examined the shaft more closely. It was heavy, sturdy, not the hollow wood of a jousting lance, but the solid oak of a battle weapon. Best of all, the point was razor sharp, barbed and deadly.

His sword had shattered, but this... at full charge, it could deliver ten times the force he could manage with a blade in hand. Of course, if the creature was magical, even the most impressive force of muscle and steel would be useless against it. But this was the strongest weapon available, and so Lancelot would use it to the best of his ability. What other choice did he have?

"Let's go… unless you've decided to abandon this foolishness and return to the palace where you belong."

Merlin grinned. "Not a chance."

Gwen stood beside Morgana's open window, biting her fingernails down to stubs as she watched the twin figures gallop out of the city gates and disappear into the darkness beyond. One was dressed from head to toe in heavy, protective armor, holding a lance proudly aloft. The other was wearing only simple homespun, without so much as a dagger to defend himself.

What have I done? she fretted. She'd only meant for him to try and talk Lancelot out of this madness, not to ride out and risk his own life, too! No, she'd never thought Merlin was like that… he'd always seemed to have too much sense to do something so reckless.

Not that Lancelot doesn't have sense, she quickly amended. But Merlin isn't a fighter. He's not trained for this. What is he doing? Oh, this is all my fault...

She nearly jumped out of her skin when Morgana touched her on the back, pulling her hand away from her mouth before wrapping her limp fingers around a glass of wine.

"Thank you, my lady, but I'm not thirsty," she said absently.

"It's not for your thirst. It's for your nerves. Drink," the other woman commanded, then softened her voice. "Trust me, it will help."

Gwen had stayed with Gaius at first, but hadn't been able to tolerate his comforting pats and constant reassurances for long. No, not when his own fear for Merlin had been painfully obvious and it was her fault he was in danger in the first place.

She'd come here instead, forgetting all about courtesy as she'd burst into the chamber, babbling about Griffins and Lancelot and certain death. Morgana had been startled by the panicked entrance, but she'd shown no surprise at the news itself.

"I knew Arthur would do the right thing," she'd said with a great deal of satisfaction. "Good thing, too. I didn't even have a chance to speak with him today, what with all the commotion around here."

So Arthur had released Lancelot, and not because Morgana had talked him into it either. He'd done it because he'd known the punishment was unjust – what other reason could there be? She felt a little more warmly toward him, realizing he'd chosen to look beyond his father's ridiculous codes, obviously recognizing the goodness in Lancelot. He might be arrogant, but he was surprisingly kind when he wanted to be.

Morgana had hugged her and murmured a few reassuring words when she'd first arrived, but refrained from fussing over her as Gaius had done. Gwen was grateful for the quiet support – though nothing could relieve her anxiety as long as Lancelot and Merlin were at the mercy of that terrible creature, being here was still more comforting than anywhere else would've been.

All was silent for what seemed like an endless time... until another succession of piercing screeches filled the air. Dozens of men cried out in response; she felt a chill in the pit of her stomach as one by one, their battle shouts turned into screams of terror and anguish.

After a few minutes, the creature began to shriek again, the flapping of its wings echoing off the stone walls of Camelot like distant thunder.

Was Lancelot out there lying helpless on the ground, wounded, bleeding... dying? There was no sound to be heard in response to the creature now, no human voices filling the night air. No, there was nothing but the Griffin itself, screaming in triumph as if mocking her silent fear.

Then there was a deafening crash, as if the walls of Camelot were coming down around them, and the glass slipped from Gwen's fingers and shattered. All she could do was watch as the rich, red liquid seeped into the stones beneath her feet, a chilling mimicry of the blood that must be staining the ground outside.

Merlin's blood. Arthur's blood. Lancelot's blood.

Trembling violently, she could only stare at the floor in mute horror.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20: The Truth Inside

An eerie fog filled the air as Lancelot and Merlin rode through the forest, guided by the sound of furious screeches and shouted commands in the distance. The temperature of the warm summer night began to plummet as they drew closer, the woods around them becoming cold, sinister, forbidding.

The Griffin shrieked again, louder and more menacing than before. Piercing noises echoed off the trees, as the heavy steel of dozens of blades shattered against the beast's impenetrable hide. Men screamed in terror and agony, choking off into silence as they were ravaged without mercy. There was a series of sickening thuds, the sound of bodies being flung through the air and hitting the ground with forceful impact.

Surrounded by the stark reality of death, Lancelot hesitated.

Years of hard training and courageous resolve melted away, replaced by a paralyzing fear that gripped his heart and set him to trembling. He felt like a helpless little boy all over again, desperately longing to flee to safety the way he'd done when his village had been attacked by raiders all those years before.

I know nothing about real combat, he suddenly realized with a feeling of despair. Nothing.

Books and codes, training sessions and proper techniques, sparring matches with friendly opponents... what use was any of that to him now? Other than his first encounter with the Griffin, when there'd been no time to think about the danger involved, he'd never faced a deadly foe.

Do I have the strength to go through with this?

It had been easy to believe in honor and courage from afar... simple to pledge the sacrifice of his life, bravely and boldly, when it was merely a concept and not reality. Now that the moment was upon him to prove the truth of those words, however, Lancelot realized how naive he'd been.

His vows had been the boasting of a boy, not the promises of a man who truly understood what it meant to put his life in peril for the sake of others.

He didn't have to do this. There was still the option of turning his horse around and riding hard in the opposite direction, the chance to leave this place and never look back. He could find another occupation for himself, one where he might enjoy peace and safety for the rest of his days. Of course, he'd live with the shame of what he'd done... but at least he'd be alive.

With that thought, Lancelot realized that the real test of his skill and courage, the proof that he'd been worthy of the knighthood, lay in the choice he made now. And it was his decision – there was nothing forcing him to ride headlong into mortal danger, no obligation or vows of servitude to hold him here. He was a free man.

Now was the time for truth... the moment to make the call that would shape the rest of his life. This was the final chance to turn back, to choose a different path.

My last chance... for what? To walk away from everything that means anything to me? Everything I ever hope to live and die for?

And in that moment, the choice was made.

Exchanging a quick glance with Merlin, Lancelot found the faith he needed reflected back at him through a pair of gentle blue eyes. Swallowing his remaining fear, he gave his friend a small nod before he nudged his horse into motion.

When he moved forward, it was with a renewed sense of purpose, an absolute certainty that removed any lingering shred of doubt from his mind.

This is not what I'd like to be, he knew deep in his heart, as he'd never quite known it before. This is what I am.

Crumpled bodies littered the ground as they reached the site of the attack, silent and unmoving. As they dismounted and searched through the carnage, he felt a stab of grief. Many were men he recognized... men he'd talked, laughed, and drank with only the night before. It seemed like a memory from a different life now, as his gaze passed over their frozen faces. These men would never laugh again.

"Arthur..." Merlin gasped. Lancelot rushed to his side as he knelt beside the fallen prince, searching desperately for a pulse.

"Well?" he asked hopefully.

"He's alive."

There were tears in the other man's eyes as he laid his hand on Arthur's chest, a gesture that was surprisingly tender. This was the truth of his feelings, Lancelot realized. Beneath all the jabs and insults, Merlin deeply loved the man he served.

But then the Griffin reappeared, circling the treetops and shrieking an ominous warning as it searched for a place to land. Lancelot exchanged a meaningful look with his friend and then mounted his horse, galloping off to position himself for the charge.

Letting out a piercing scream as it landed, the creature waited, taunting Lancelot with its wordless cries. They were noises meant to intimidate and inspire terror, but he was beyond that now. Fixing his foe with an unwavering stare, steely and determined, he lowered the visor of his helmet and prepared himself for his final ride.

The frightened horse reared beneath him, quickly soothed by murmured words and a gentle touch. A practiced nudge of heel to flank and then he was off, galloping headlong into the clutches of the Griffin... into the jaws of almost certain death.

It should have been the most terrifying experience of his life, but instead, Lancelot felt exhilarated, knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that this was what he'd been born to do. He'd always heard that a person's entire life flashed before their eyes at the end. Perhaps that was true for some, but his thoughts were only of his happiest moments within Camelot's walls.

As he charged forward, he pictured Merlin and Gaius teasing each other with loving affection. Merlin, the first real friend he'd ever had, championing his quest for knighthood and showing faith in him as no one had done before.

He remembered Arthur and the way he'd treated him with understanding and respect, both before and after his lack of nobility had been revealed. Following that, he spared a few precious seconds for Morgana, who'd brought him comfort in the face of his shame, supporting both his ambition to serve and his feelings for Gwen.

Most of all, he thought of her. Closing his eyes, he imagined all the tender looks that had passed between them, each speaking a thousand words that voices could not utter. He marveled over the miracle of her sweet, uncertain kisses, given in their last moments together like some priceless treasure... lovely lips he would imagine himself kissing with his last breath. He'd fallen in love with her instantly, effortlessly, as if…

I love her, he admitted to himself with a sense of wonder as the horse picked up speed beneath him, realizing that this was the feeling he hadn't been able to put into words while in her presence. "And I'll love her until the day I die."

Spoken in a whisper, the vow was whipped away by the rushing wind that blew in his wake. That wind carried the words back to Camelot… straight to Gwen, though he had little hope that she might hear them now.

And then as he charged past Merlin, Lancelot's thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a frantic shout he couldn't understand.

"Bregdan anweald gafeluec!"


"Bregdan anweald gafeluec!" Merlin yelled again, sounding even more insistent than before.

Why is he screaming at me in some foreign tongue? What is he trying to say?

The Griffin let out a deafening screech just then and began to charge. Gripping the lance more firmly, Lancelot touched his heels to his horse's flanks, begging for more speed.

"Bregdan anweald gafeluec."

The words were murmured softly this time, each syllable drawn out with quiet determination. Somehow they reached his ears above the rushing wind, the piercing screeches of the Griffin, and the growing distance between himself and Merlin. They came to him as clearly as if they'd been spoken in a quiet room.

Suddenly, the lance in his hand grew warm, seeming to hum with the energy of a living thing. The weapon caught fire with a hiss, alighting with flames of blindingly brilliant blue.

Magic! Merlin is using magic!

And then there was no room for further thought as he slammed into the Griffin with an impact that rattled his bones. With a deafening sound, the glowing lance penetrated the creature's chest as no other weapon had been able to do. It gave a final scream as it fell, hitting the ground with a force that seemed to shake the walls of Camelot in the distance.

Lancelot swayed back in the saddle, managing to keep his seat as the horse charged onward, still driven forward by the momentum of the attack. Gradually slowing, then turning as his mount was finally brought to a standstill, he stared in disbelief at the monster lying dead on the ground in his wake.

"Yes!" Merlin cried, grinning triumphantly.

Happy but overwhelmed, he panted with exertion after his wild charge, still quivering from the force of the blow he'd struck. Taking a deep breath, he tried to settle his nerves and gather his thoughts enough to speak.

It was a lot to take in. The creature was dead. He was alive. Merlin had magic. Powerful magic. Merlin had saved his life. Merlin...

Arthur stirred just then, letting out a groan of pain.

Merlin suddenly seemed frightened, opening and closing his mouth helplessly as he silently begged Lancelot with his eyes. Without a word, he turned and ran away.

Say nothing, was the message he'd read in that worried stare. Arthur must not know.

"What…?" Arthur murmured as he struggled to his feet, trailing off as he noticed the Griffin's lifeless body and the lance still gripped tightly in his trembling hand.


"You did it. You killed it, Lancelot!" he cried, giving him a look of gratitude and tremendous respect... as if he were some sort of hero.

But I'm not, a voice inside Lancelot whispered, a realization that dampened the joy of the moment. Merlin was the hero... and no one could ever know.

"Come, we must tell the king of your victory! Tell me how it happened. How did you do it, Lancelot? Over a dozen knights and we couldn't even make a scratch! You must have hit it with the force of a battering ram!"

He rode closer, dismounting when he reached Arthur's side. "Sire, please take my horse. I'll walk back."

"You are the hero, Lancelot. The entire kingdom owes you a great debt. The horse is yours and you will ride back to Camelot as you deserve… like a knight returning in triumph from the field of battle."

"Sire, please. You're injured. It wouldn't be right..."

"It wouldn't be right for you to disobey a direct order," Arthur retorted, though he was obviously trying to hide a smile. "Now mount up and let's go."

Lancelot held his horse to a slow walk all the way back to the city, keeping pace with Arthur as he lumbered along, doing his best to hide a very noticeable limp. Why will he not just ride? he fretted, hardly able to stand the guilt. Even if he thinks I killed the Griffin…

Meanwhile, Arthur chattered away happily, oblivious to his inner turmoil.

"I had no idea you were so skilled with the lance. When my father restores your knighthood, we'll have to get you signed up for the tournaments. Some of our better jousters have begun to take their victories for granted. We need a man like you to keep them on their toes."

"Restores my knighthood, sire?" A few hours ago, the idea would have thrilled him, but now...

"Of course!" Arthur exclaimed. "You killed the Griffin. What more could you do to prove yourself worthy? Even my father will see that, I have no doubt about it."

Lancelot sighed heavily. He still wanted to join the knighthood, to pledge life and loyalty to Arthur's service. But based on another deception? He didn't feel bad for the lie itself... at least this one was honorable, necessary for protection, not based on selfish ambition. But taking credit for Merlin's actions? At least his skill in the field had won him his previous title.

I want to earn everything I receive based on my own merits, he admitted to himself with a touch of sadness. If that isn't possible at this time, then I must give up my quest for knighthood until that day comes. I cannot compromise my honor again or take credit for something I didn't do.

Gwen knelt on the floor of Morgana's chamber, sweeping up broken glass and scrubbing at the large red stain left by the wine she'd spilled. Working the brush furiously, she channeled all of her worry and frustration into the task.

How much longer? she wondered anxiously, almost beginning to feel that hearing the worst would be less troubling than not knowing either way. When will there be word?

"Oh, there's Merlin!" Morgana said, as casually as if he'd only gone down to the lower town to collect a bundle of herbs.

Nearly spilling the bucket of soapy water, Gwen stood abruptly. "Where?" she gasped, seconds before she spotted the lone figure that was racing up the palace steps. He'd ridden out with Lancelot... and had returned alone.

There must be a reasonable explanation. He can't be dead. Please, no.

"Gwen, it doesn't necessarily mean..." Morgana started. Looking at Gwen's face however, she must've seen something in her expression which caused her to trail off into silence. Perhaps it was the realization that the only thing that would comfort Gwen in that moment was something she couldn't give.

The minutes passed in silence, seeming more like hours as the women kept their vigil. There'd been no other sound following the terrible crash, and that felt as if it had been a lifetime ago.

But at long last, they were both startled by an urgent knock. "I'll get it, my lady," Gwen said automatically. Not bad news, she thought anxiously as she crossed the chamber. Please don't let him be dead. I won't be able to stand it.

She opened the door with a trembling hand, surprised to find a cheerful looking Merlin waiting on the other side. He grinned at her, entering the chamber without being invited just as he always did.

"Gwen! You'll never believe..."

"Gwen!" Morgana interrupted. "Quick, come look!"

Merlin followed her as she rushed over to the window, obviously forgetting all about what he'd come there to say. Gwen stared out over the city, letting out a gasp of surprise as she saw the two figures who were entering the main gates.

With his head high and lance held proudly aloft, Lancelot rode into Camelot, the very picture of a conquering hero. His horse pranced restlessly beneath him, clearly impatient with the slow gait as he kept pace with Arthur who was walking at his side.

"Lancelot's done it," Merlin said from behind her, sounding proud and exuberant. "He's defeated the Griffin!"

At those words, the unbearable weight of fear melted away, leaving her drained and shaken in the aftermath. Overwhelmed by gratitude and relief, she put a hand to her mouth and promptly burst into tears.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21: Farewell to Camelot

Lancelot hadn't expected Uther to react well to his presence when he'd reluctantly followed Arthur into the Council Chamber. Despite the limited time he'd spent around the king, he wasn't difficult to understand... hard, stubborn, unyielding to a fault. There was no point in hoping a man like that would offer second chances.

Poor Arthur... so obviously desperate to find some sense of honor in his father that was similar to his own. Clearly expecting Uther to be grateful to the man who'd destroyed the Griffin, commoner or not, his face had transformed from joy to bewilderment, and then to disappointed anger as the king had coldly ordered him from the room instead.

No, Lancelot hadn't been surprised when Uther had fixed him with that contemptuous stare, steel blue eyes no warmer than they'd been that morning. Where the king was concerned, it didn't matter whether he'd slain a hundred Griffins. All he'd ever see was a peasant who'd broken the law.

To Uther, Lancelot was worthless.

The realization didn't even hurt anymore. After all, why should he care anything for the opinion of a man he couldn't even bring himself to respect?

No... what hurt was hearing Arthur's angry shouts through the door, arguing vehemently on his behalf.

If he somehow convinced his father to restore Lancelot's knighthood, it would be an honor he could not refuse. To do so would be an insult to a man who had shown him nothing but kindness. No, he would have to accept, then somehow live with the shame of taking credit for Merlin's actions.

And if he did accept, what then?

Uther would always resent him. He'd never be a true knight in the king's eyes, who'd no doubt look for fault in him at every turn. And when Arthur came to his defense, it would be a source of bitter conflict between them. How could he allow himself to be responsible for that?

And yet, if Uther refused, Arthur would be angry and resentful at what he saw as a grave injustice. If Lancelot remained in Camelot in the face of that, he would be a constant reminder to Arthur of how badly the king had disappointed his hopes.

No... both outcomes would strain relations between father and son, causing a great deal of misunderstanding and pain. Lancelot didn't want that, especially after everything Arthur had done for him.

But what other choice do I have? he thought helplessly. The decision is out of my hands.

"What are they doing?" Merlin asked as he joined him.

"Deciding my fate," he responded with a shrug.

The argument inside the chamber grew louder and more heated. He was overwhelmed by a rush of guilt, even though he felt humbled and incredibly grateful that Arthur was willing to go so far on his behalf.

"They'll restore your knighthood. Of course they will. You killed the Griffin."

"But I didn't kill the Griffin." Lancelot quietly responded, mindful of any eavesdroppers. "You did."

Merlin sputtered in protest. "That's ridiculous!"

"Bregdan anweald?" He gave his friend a small smile. "I heard you. I saw you."

Merlin glanced anxiously at the guards standing a few yards away, then turned back to Lancelot with eyes that were wide and full of fear.

Gentle, unassuming Merlin, who'd do anything to help a person in need. All the while, he carried an enormous secret that would likely get him killed if it were ever discovered, even by those he should've been able to trust the most. Lancelot's heart went out to him, scarcely able to imagine what it must be like to have to hide such a huge part of who he was.

Merlin had risked his life in order to use his magic for good, knowing very well he could never take credit or receive any recognition. Worse, he'd done so with the ever present knowledge that he could easily be executed as a criminal for his selfless act.

Lancelot felt humbled in the face of that realization.

"Don't worry, your secret's safe with me. But I cannot take the credit for what I did not do. There'll be no more lies, no more deceit."

Merlin frowned. "What are you going to do?"

"The only thing I can do," he said, as the solution came to him from out of nowhere.

Without another word, he made his way across the hall with several quick strides. A hard shove and the doors of the Council Chamber opened with a crash, just as two guards grabbed him roughly by the arms and attempted to drag him away.

"What is this?" Uther demanded.

"Let me speak!" he spat in frustration, struggling under their bruising grip.

"Wait!" Uther called. "I'll hear him."

The guards released him as he took a deep breath, bracing himself for the pain of what he had to do.

"Forgive me, sire," he said softly. "I've come to bid you farewell."

Arthur stared at him in bewilderment. "What is this, Lancelot?"

"I lied to you both and now there is conflict between you," he explained, somehow managing to keep his voice steady. "I cannot bear that burden, as you should not bear mine. I must start again, far from here. Then maybe one day fate shall grant me another chance to prove myself a worthy Knight of Camelot."

"But Lancelot," Arthur protested. "You've already proved that to us."

No, I haven't, he thought wistfully. But I will. Someday, I will.

"But I must prove it to myself," he said aloud.

Even in that bittersweet moment, it was comforting to finally be able to speak the truth. More importantly, he'd found a way to do it without revealing anything that would've endangered Merlin. The thought of leaving Camelot was almost too painful to imagine, but at least he could do so now with his head held high and his honor intact.

"You don't have to go," Merlin protested after they'd made their way back to Gaius's chamber.

Lancelot packed his battered leather satchel with a grim expression on his face, determined not to allow even the most convincing arguments to sway him from his course. Leaving was going to be hard enough on its own… better to ignore any further temptation to stay.

"Even if you can't be a knight, you could still live in Camelot. You could just stay on here with me and Gaius. I could help you find work and maybe after some time has passed, Arthur can convince his father..."

"No, Merlin," he said quietly. "I cannot. I told you, I will not take credit for your actions. It isn't right."

"I don't care about that! You belong here! You know you do! If it's just this one little thing stopping you... who cares? You'll get your knighthood back sooner or later and after that, you'll earn everything for yourself."

Lancelot gave him a searching look. "This isn't the first time you've used magic to help Arthur, is it?"

Merlin hesitated, then shook his head.

"I imagine you're used to not receiving the credit you deserve for your actions. Well, I will not make matters worse by claiming it for myself. You saved my life and were willing to allow everyone to believe that I was the hero in your stead, though I'd done nothing to deserve such an honor. While I appreciate it, I can't…"

He was startled when the other man laughed.

"Nothing? Lancelot, you charged down a Griffin... a monster who'd slaughtered hundreds of innocent people. You faced it on your own without knowing I had magic to help you, willing to die in the attempt to destroy it. Doesn't that make you a hero?"

He blinked in surprise, not having thought about it from that perspective. The words gave him comfort, allowing him the satisfaction of acknowledging his own bravery. Yes, at least in that sense, he'd proven he was far from being a coward. But somehow, that only made him more certain he was making the right choice.

"I'm not going to change your mind, am I?"

"I'm sorry, Merlin. This is the only path I can take."

"Where will you go?"

"I don't know," he responded, then sighed heavily. "I haven't had a chance to think about that yet."

"What about Gwen?"

Gwen... Lancelot closed his eyes and fought back a rush of pain. If leaving everything else were a punch to the gut, leaving her was like a blade to the heart. He'd been trying to put her from his mind as much as possible, afraid that if he thought about her too much, he wouldn't have the strength to do what he needed to do.

The truth was, he had to leave if he was to have any hope of ever being worthy of her.

She won't see it that way, he realized with a great deal of sadness. However I try to explain, she will not understand.

He couldn't leave without telling her goodbye, and yet how could he stand face to face with his heart's deepest desire, then turn and walk away from that very thing? 

"Do you have quill and parchment? I'll write her a letter. It will be much easier for me to explain."

Nodding somewhat reluctantly, Merlin got up and retrieved the items from the outer chamber. "When will you leave?" he asked as he returned. "Are you going to tell her goodbye?"

"She's probably asleep by now; I wouldn't want to disturb her. No, I'll write this and then be on my way. The longer I wait, the more difficult it will be."

"You can't!" Merlin protested. "It's after midnight and you're practically shaking with exhaustion. I understand that you feel you have to go, but please, get a few hours of rest first."

"I'm not that tired," Lancelot lied.

In truth, it had been one of the longest days he'd ever known. Given the chance, he'd love nothing more than to sleep through the night and well into the following afternoon. But he was terrified that the longer he waited, the more his resolve would weaken.

What if I wake tomorrow and cannot do it? No, I need to leave tonight...

"Lancelot," Merlin said quietly. "As a friend, please just promise me you won't ride until first light. Just a few hours rest. That's all I ask."

He opened his mouth to refuse, then stopped himself with a feeling of shame. It was a perfectly reasonable request, particularly after everything Merlin had done for him; it would be cruel to make him worry when it wasn't necessary.

With a resigned sigh, he agreed.

Merlin, clearly exhausted himself, stretched out on the pallet and was asleep within minutes. Lancelot smiled, realizing he couldn't even remember whether or not it was his turn for the floor.

Lighting a candle, he settled himself on the bed and began to write.

Dearest Guinevere,

I am sorry I could not tell you goodbye in person. Please know that...

Two hours later, after several failed attempts and a few long pauses to gather his thoughts, the letter was finally completed to his satisfaction. Retrieving a small item from his satchel, the only thing of value he'd ever owned, he tucked it inside the carefully folded parchment, fixing it with the wax seal Merlin had provided.

For Guinevere, he signed above the seal, then laid it on the table next to the bed.

He was resigned to tossing and turning for the rest of the night, but it seemed his exhausted body had nothing left to give. Stretching out on his back, he almost immediately fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

All too soon, he was awake again, as bright morning sunlight poured through the window. Somehow even more weary than he'd been when he'd fallen asleep, he forced himself to rise and dress.

Following a somber breakfast with Merlin and Gaius, he accepted their embraces, carefully avoiding Merlin's attempts to distract him with aimless chatter. There was no time to delay.

He was on his way out when he hesitated, noticing the freshly polished armor that was piled by the door.

"Put it on," Merlin said softly.

It's yours, a voice inside him agreed. Gwen gave it to you as a gift. To leave it behind would be an insult. Put it on and ride out of Camelot with more than you came here with.

Yes, so much more... but he knew it had little to do with mail and plate, as Merlin quietly helped him don the armor. He'd learned the true meaning of friendship, honor, courage, loyalty, kindness... love.

To leave that all behind? For an instant, he wavered. It was a cruel thing, knowing all the things that begged him to stay were the biggest reasons he had to go.

Just a little more, his heart pleaded, bringing a lump to his throat and weakening his resolve.

One more day... one more visit to the lower town with Merlin, chattering happily as they passed through the busy streets. One more supper shared with Gaius, smiling and laughing as they discussed the events of the day.

One more glimpse of Gwen's lovely face, one last chance to look deep into those beautiful dark eyes and lose himself. To feel her close to him just one more time, warm, sweet and soft in his arms...

No, he told himself brutally. If you can't do it now, you never will.

"Farewell," he said quietly, embracing Merlin one last time. "I'll send word when I can."

He would never recall passing through the palace corridors and out into the streets, nor saddling his horse and riding out of the city gates, then down the winding road that led to places unknown.

All he'd ever remember about that day would be how desperately he'd longed to stay.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22: An Unexpected Gift

Gwen spent the night in Morgana's chamber upon her insistence that it would be foolish to walk home at such a late hour. Curling up on the comfortable pallet she used on such occasions, she'd fallen asleep with a satisfied smile on her lips.

Lancelot was safe. Lancelot was a hero. The king was sure to restore his knighthood now, wasn't he? Defeating a menace that no one, not even the Knights of Camelot and Prince Arthur himself had been able to kill? Surely that must be enough to earn Lancelot a knighthood, noble or not.

Arthur will speak for him if necessary, she'd reassured herself as she'd drifted off to sleep.

Early the following morning, she accompanied Morgana to her weekly breakfast with Arthur and the king. Performing most of the serving duties herself, she dished up fried potatoes and slices of ham, filling goblets of cider as the two men largely ignored her.

Morgana, always more courteous than the others, treated her to an occasional smile and a murmured word of thanks.

Merlin was nowhere to be seen that morning, leaving Gwen to wonder about him as she bustled back and forth, heading to the kitchens to refill a pitcher of cider. Had he overslept? If so, she felt sorry for him, imagining the lecture he was sure to receive from Arthur later that day.

"... still don't understand why he did it," she heard Uther say as she came back into the room.

Arthur gave him a sour look. "Yes, well, that's not surprising."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

This sort of bickering was far from unusual for father and son, both of whom were not exactly at their most cheerful in the mornings. Gwen tried her best to ignore the uncomfortable exchange.

"You see nothing but codes and titles," Arthur shot back, holding out his goblet for a refill without looking at Gwen. "Admit it. Even now, you cannot see the honor in Lancelot. After all he was willing to sacrifice, you still..."

Gwen dropped the tray of napkins she was holding, wincing as it fell to the floor with a loud clatter. Hastily, she knelt to clean up the mess with a mumbled apology. Uther shot her an annoyed look, then turned back to Arthur and resumed the conversation.

"The man lied, Arthur," he said sternly. "And you talk of honor?"

"He only lied because your ridiculous codes left him no other choice!"

"I'm not having this conversation again! The man chose to leave Camelot, and before you blame me for that, he did so of his own volition. I did not banish him, though I probably should have. I issued him a pardon and for you, I might add. I will hear no more of this!"

Lancelot... gone? Gwen began to tremble. No... She struggled to compose herself, forgetting all about the cider she was pouring until the goblet in Morgana's hand overflowed, staining the sleeve of her white silk gown.

"Morgana, what is wrong with your maid today? Perhaps we need to find you a suitable replacement."

"No, sire. It's just... Gwen isn't feeling well, that's all. Poor girl is so loyal that she insisted on trying to work through her illness, when she should be home in bed. She's an excellent servant, truly. If you'll excuse us... Gwen? Come and help me change, then you must retire to your home and get some rest."

Uther nodded, waving his hand dismissively as the women hurried from the room.

"Thank you, my lady," Gwen said as they made their way down the corridor. "For covering for me, I mean. I'm sorry about your gown... I'll help you undress and put it in a bucket to soak."

"Don't apologize. You just saved me from having to listen to the two of them bickering all morning. Besides, I've never liked this dress much anyway."

She nodded as they reached Morgana's chamber. "What would you like to wear? The purple velvet, perhaps? It looks lovely on you, and it is a bit chilly today."

"Gwen..." Morgana said softly. "How much did you hear?"

"I heard that he's gone. What else is there to say?"

Gone, and he hadn't even told her goodbye. Not by the king's orders. Not because he'd been banished and had had no choice but to leave immediately. It had been his own decision… but why?

With a great deal of effort, Gwen swallowed the lump in her throat and busied herself unfastening Morgana's gown.

I'll think about it later, after I've had a chance to speak with Merlin. I'll wait until I'm alone. Then I'll feel... I'll cry... whatever I need to do. But not here. Not now.

"I'm here if you want to talk about it," Morgana said gently. "When you're ready."

"Thank you," she murmured. "Later, perhaps."

She helped Morgana change, put the dress in a bucket to soak, changed the bedding, and went to scrub the window. I have to stay busy, she told herself firmly. I mustn't cry.

But then she looked out the slightly smudged window, spotting the lone figure riding down the winding road that led away from Camelot.

Lancelot... she'd know the proud tilt of his head anywhere. He rode in full armor, swift and sure, eyes focused straight on the road ahead. Not once did he turn back to glance at the city he was leaving behind.

And all she could do was watch helplessly as he rode out of her life, wondering why he hadn't said goodbye... and why he didn't hesitate, even for a second. Was it so easy to leave it all behind?


She struggled to push away her dismal thoughts, turning to Morgana as she somehow managed a small smile.


"Oh... yes," she said, doing her best to sound dismissive. She wasn't ready to share her feelings just yet... not when she could barely face them herself. Avoiding Morgana's penetrating gaze, she hoped the other woman wouldn't press her further.

"Come, Gwen. We've a busy day ahead."

Following that, she was kept occupied with an endless succession of tasks. She wouldn't have had time to think even if she'd wanted to, rushing through all her normal duties, then tackling each of the increasingly bizarre chores that were assigned for her.

"Here," Morgana said, handing her a list as she flashed a brilliant smile. "Could you retrieve a few items from the lower town for me?"

Most of the items were typical beauty treatments – jasmine soap, milk and honey cream for her face, the herbal concoction women used to remove unwanted hair from their bodies. But some of the other things on the list... where on earth was she supposed to find a toy horse with a flowing black mane? And what would Morgana even do with such a thing?

She's running out of ideas, Gwen realized with a touch of amusement as she made her way out into the corridor. Bless her... it was probably as much work to come up with so many extra tasks as it was to perform them.

"Oh, sorry!"

"Gwen," Merlin said with a small laugh, kneeling to retrieve the basket she'd dropped when she'd bumped into him. "It's all right. I was actually coming down here to find you." Reaching into the pocket of his jacket, he pulled out a thick letter. "From Lancelot."

At those words, suppressed disappointment transformed into a sort of wild hope. She clung to the letter like a lifeline, staring at Merlin in both amazement and relief.

"I thought... I thought he didn't want to tell me goodbye."

"Guinevere, you know Lancelot better than that. Go on and read it when you have the time. As for me, Arthur is going to have my hide if I don't meet him at the training grounds soon. If you'll excuse me..."

The rest of the day was torturous. Morgana's senseless busy work ceased to be a needed escape, becoming an endless succession of wearisome tasks designed to keep her from the only thing she desperately wanted to do.

What does the letter say? she wondered throughout the afternoon, reaching into her pocket from time to time to reassure herself it was real.

By the time early evening arrived, she was yawning hugely whenever she caught Morgana looking in her direction. It wasn't difficult to fake sleepiness... she was tired after the day's constant activity.

Sleep was the last thing on her mind however, as she was finally dismissed, practically running all the way home and then shutting the door behind her with a sigh of relief.

Alone at long last, she reached into the pocket of her apron, pulling out the folded parchment Merlin had given her. For Guinevere, the outside read. The handwriting was simple, straightforward and bold, rather like Lancelot himself.

With trembling hands, Gwen broke the seal, scrambling to catch a small object as it slid through her fingers. She knelt to pick it up, holding it to the light of the candle with a gasp of amazement.

Suspended on a delicate silver chain, the pendant twinkled and glittered with precious jewels. Amethysts, she knew from all her years of caring for Morgana's jewelry. Dozens of tiny amethysts, interspersed with sapphires, made up the petals of the flower shaped medallion. The leaves were dotted with emeralds, delicate silver vines woven all around the shimmering blossom.

Of course, it was smaller and more simple than the jewels the ladies of the court liked to wear. To Gwen, however, it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

How did Lancelot...?

Seating herself at the table, she clutched the necklace tightly in one hand as she began to read the letter.

Dearest Guinevere,

I am sorry I could not tell you goodbye in person. Please know that leaving Camelot... leaving you, is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Even now, my heart begs for another option, even as my mind knows this is my only choice.

I know Arthur understands my reasons for the deception and is willing to look past my error in judgment. Were I to stay, he would champion my cause. But it is not enough. The king will not forgive, and I cannot be the cause of strife between them.

All my life, all I've ever wanted was to devote my skills to honorable service. But having to deceive or cause conflict among those I care for is not honorable at all, no matter how pure my intentions might be. I would not be able to bear the guilt and shame.

That is why I must go. I must find another way to prove myself, so that one day I might have a chance to return and serve the way I was always meant to do – with loyalty, truth and honor.

Gwen, I wish I could tell you everything that is in my heart. I cannot begin to express how much you've come to mean to me or the gratitude I feel... not only for your help and generosity, but for every moment we've shared since the moment we met.

I will not make pledges and promises, nor ask any such vow from you. It would not be fair when the future is so uncertain and I cannot even begin to say when I might see you again. I make no demands on you, nor would I presume to stake a claim on your future... not when I have so little to offer in return.

For now, I can only leave you with the most precious possession I own.

When I was a boy, my mother wore this necklace. I asked her once how she'd come to own something so lovely, being as my family was of the most humble origins.

"Your father won it in a card game at the tavern the night before we married," she told me. "He bet his cottage and land, as well as five years of servitude in exchange."

"Why?" I asked. It was difficult to understand why anyone would risk so much for a piece of jewelry.

I remember my mother smiling as she explained. "Your father knew he'd never be able to give me more than a lifetime of hard work, with only the barest necessities as a reward. He wanted me to have something beautiful... just one thing that was only for me."

When I commented that he'd been very brave to risk so much, my mother replied by telling me he was a damn fool. I remember thinking that was a terrible thing for her to say, until she told me that was why she loved him.

Gwen, I'm an even bigger fool than my father was, because a single token could never be enough to make me feel worthy of you. I'd never presume to ask for your heart unless I had so much more to offer than what I am in this moment.

Do not wait for me. Do not put your life on hold or sacrifice even a moment of happiness for my sake. If it is our fate to find one another again someday, I have to believe we will.

Until then, keep this as a token of my affections and know that I will carry the memory of you in my heart wherever I may travel in all the days to come.

With love, Lancelot

Chapter Text

Chapter 23: Survival

Lancelot brought his horse to a standstill on the bank of a small, swift running river. The thickly wooded inlet was surrounded by dense vegetation that sheltered it from the worst of the chill wind, and there was even a patch of decent grazing at the water's edge, grass still green despite the cooling temperatures.

Satisfied, he dismounted and began to set up camp.

How long had it been since he'd left Camelot? He could no longer remember, having counted the first fifteen days or so before giving it up as a worthless endeavor. It didn't matter; time had become a meaningless blur as he'd traveled without purpose or destination.

Days blended into weeks, weeks turned into months... he tried not to think about time anymore. He did his best not to think at all, which wasn't so difficult as it became all he could do just to survive.

He'd traveled to Camelot in high summer, sleeping under the stars on warm, balmy nights, comfortable and well fed from the substantial provisions he'd brought along in his battered satchel. It hadn't even rained during his journey.

Leaving had been something else entirely.

Lancelot had stayed at roadside taverns in the beginning, paid for with the silver coins he'd found wrapped in a frayed blue scarf at the bottom of his satchel. He'd passed a couple of weeks that way, thinking of nothing beyond reaching his next destination, then drinking as much ale as it took to chase away his regrets.

Nights had been spent in a miserable drunken haze, followed by days of blinding sun and splitting headaches. He hadn't wanted to feel anything... to crave the warm glow of contentment he'd known in Camelot or face the dismal world he was beginning to discover lay outside its walls. No, he'd just wanted to lose himself.

If he'd been a rich man, he was sure he would've drank himself to death during those first few weeks. Of course, if he were a rich man, he would've never have found himself in such a hopeless situation to begin with.

In the end, his small supply of coins had run out, and he'd come out of his ale induced stupor with more anger than he'd ever felt in his life. Much of his rage had been directed at Uther for devaluing him over a circumstance of birth, then leaving him no other choice but to walk away from everything he'd ever wanted.

But more than anything, he'd been furious with himself. Day after day, he'd replayed his time in Camelot in his head, tortured by a dozen ways things might have gone differently if he'd made wiser choices. Uther might've been a bastard about the whole ordeal, but that would've never happened if Lancelot hadn't offered up the means to hurt him on a silver platter.

Past regrets had begun to matter less and less, however, as his immediate reality had become increasingly desperate.

Without a copper to his name, there was no other choice than to sleep outdoors. Summer had passed, the chill of the autumn air creeping into his bones a little more each night as he huddled beneath his cloak, shivering beside tiny campfires that gave off nothing more than a hint of warmth. Unless he was fortunate enough to come across a cave or an uninhabited dwelling, there was no shelter from the elements.

The constant, gnawing hunger in his belly was the hardest part of all. Game was growing more scarce as winter set in and without a crossbow or coin to purchase one, hunting was a hopeless endeavor anyway. Fruits and berries became increasingly rare, and fish that might have been speared began to migrate to deeper waters.

On this night, Lancelot roasted a handful of nuts and devoured them ravenously as he sat before the fire, trying to ignore his stomach's incessant demands for something more substantial. He couldn't go on for much longer this way, he realized as he stared moodily into the flames. There were months of winter ahead, and it already felt like he was slowly starving to death. But what else could he do?

He'd tried to find work as a laborer, stopping at farms and villages to offer his services. "I'll do anything," he'd practically begged in his desperation. "I don't require payment, only food and shelter. Please, there must be something..."

Again and again, doors had been closed in his face. Some had been polite and regretful, others downright nasty, but the end result was the same – there was no work to be had. Either the farmers and craftsmen had already taken on all the laborers they needed for the winter, or they couldn't afford workers at all.

Lancelot had eventually realized that kingdom was filled with men like him… men from humble origins with nothing more than a strong back to offer. The only thing that set him apart was his skill in combat, but what use was that to him now? He'd devoted his entire life to the dream of becoming a knight, never developing any other skill that might've been helpful in his current situation.

He knew how to harvest crops, muck out stables, chop wood, repair buildings, and mend fences, which were the basic tasks every boy who'd grown up in a poor village knew how to perform. Beyond that, he was useless.

What a fool I've been, he thought helplessly. What exactly had he thought he was going to do when he left Camelot? Travel the kingdom like a knight errant, slaying mythical beasts and rescuing damsels in distress while noble men showered him with gold for his brave deeds? Was that how he'd intended to prove himself a worthy Knight of Camelot?

I've wasted my entire life on dreams. I know nothing of what it means to live in the world as it truly is... not the way I'd like it to be.

He nearly groaned in pain as his stomach growled again, his insides practically convulsing with a wave of hunger that left him shaky and faint. Curling up on his side beneath his threadbare cloak, he contemplated the only two options left to him.

I must either sell my armor or my horse unless I want to starve. I can hardly bear the thought of parting with either, but there's no other choice.

Exhausted and famished, he closed his eyes and drifted off into a fitful sleep.

"More chicken, my lady?" Gwen offered with a smile.

Morgana waved the fragrant platter away. "No, thank you, I'm stuffed! If I don't stop now, I'll never be able to fit into that new gown."

"I've been using the same measurements to create your dresses for the past four years, and after how many banquets and feasts? I really don't think you need to be concerned over an extra helping of chicken."

"Perhaps," she conceded, letting out a merry laugh. "But Lord Lionel is in the city to attend the celebrations tomorrow night. You must forgive me if I'm more concerned with my appearance than usual."

Morgana usually divided her attentions between two handsome knights who lived in the palace, but no other man existed for her when Lord Lionel visited Camelot. Tall, lean and fierce, with a thick fall of dark blond hair and piercing green eyes, most of the ladies of the court were set aflutter whenever he was near.

He only had eyes for Morgana, however, and Gwen was of the belief that the relationship would've been much more serious if he were around more frequently.

"My lady, I'm sure you'll take his breath away like you always do. After all, what man can resist you?"

Other than Lancelot, of course, she thought wistfully as she touched the small medallion. Though she wore it well hidden, wrapped around her wrist like a bracelet beneath the sleeve of her dress, she hadn't taken it off since the night she'd read his letter for the first time.

"Thinking about him again?"

"H-how did you know?"

"The dreamy look on your face. I've seen that expression a hundred times over these past few months, Gwen. I may not have said anything, but that doesn't mean I haven't noticed."

It was true. Morgana hadn't spoken of Lancelot since the day he'd left Camelot and neither had Gwen, choosing to deal with her feelings privately instead. Part of her had longed to talk about it, but it was all so confusing. For the first few weeks, it had seemed as if she'd had a different emotion every five minutes. Difficult enough to deal with on her own, much less try to explain to someone else.

She'd read his letter several times a day at first, comforted by every word that made it abundantly clear how much he cared for her. And every night, she'd slept with the blue homespun shirt he'd left at her house the morning she'd helped him into his new clothes and armor.

Traces of his scent still lingered in the unwashed fabric, clean, masculine, and utterly delicious. Night after night, she'd crawl into bed and bury her face in the shirt's folds, closing her eyes and inhaling the addictive scent until she could almost pretend he was right there beside her.

Vividly, she'd remember being wrapped in his arms, strong hands gently caressing her back as she'd melted into the heat of his body. Chills would dance up and down her spine as she tasted the memory of his kisses, lips soft and sweetly intoxicating, then hard and hungry as they'd evoked a desperate longing deep inside her... pleasure she'd never felt before she'd met him.

She'd been deeply embarrassed the first time she'd touched herself beneath the blankets, abashed at the moans and whimpers she couldn't seem to silence. It had been impossible to stop, however, as delicious heat had coiled within her and she'd brought herself to her first climax, gasping in shock as the world had exploded around her.

Embarrassing or not, it became a regular occurrence, giving herself over to one delicious exploration after another as she pictured how much more blissful those things might be with Lancelot beside her. She'd forget all about the rest of the world as she imagined his hands all over her body, fingers so much stronger and rougher than her own. Lancelot... holding her eyes with his intense gaze, then ravaging her mouth with deep kisses...

Gwen had known the basics since she'd had her first courses, when an older maid had been kind enough to explain what went on between a man and a woman. She'd heard bits and pieces here and there after that, conversations that were whispered among the palace staff when there was no one around to reprimand them.

But she hadn't known... the craving, the hunger, the pleasure. If the rest of it was anywhere near as intoxicating as the little she'd experienced on her own, she found it difficult to understand how people managed to get out of bed at all.

"Gwen, you're blushing," Morgana said, bringing her swiftly back to the present. "Why are you blushing?"

"It's nothing, my lady," she responded with what she hoped was a passable attempt at a smile. "I'm sorry, I just haven't been ready to talk about... you know."

In truth, exploring her physical reactions to Lancelot had been easy, a pleasurable and welcome distraction. But the feelings in her heart were much too complicated to even begin to sort them out.

On one hand, he'd made it clear that he had serious feelings for her. Considering she felt the same, it only made sense to simply be patient until he returned, no matter how long it might take. She couldn't imagine any other man affecting her the way he did... nor did she want to.

But he'd told her not to wait for him. What did that mean? Was he afraid he might decide he wanted a different life? Worried that perhaps one of them might find someone else? Was he unsure his feelings would last? Or did he just not want her to wait around for him, fearing she'd be wasting her life if he couldn't return?

It didn't matter, since there was nothing she could do to change her feelings anyway. There was no denying her longing for him, no changing the way she worried about him dozens of times throughout the day. Where is he? Is he safe? Is he happy? Will he send word when he can? When will I see him again? Does he miss me? Does he think of me as much as I think of him?

Nearly four months since he'd left and he was never far from her thoughts.

"I understand if you're still not ready to talk about it," Morgana said, interrupting her musings again. "You don't ever have to, if that's what you'd prefer. But I'm your friend, Gwen. I just want you to know that I'm here if you need me."

I'm your friend...

Morgana wasn't just her friend… Gwen trusted her more than anyone else in the world. Why had she been shutting her out so much since Lancelot had left Camelot? Beyond the fact that Morgana certainly deserved the truth, she was tired of keeping such an important part of her life to herself.

Unsure of how to begin, she pushed back her sleeve, watching the other woman's eyes grow wide as the tiny jewels twinkled in the candlelit chamber.

"Lancelot left a letter for me..."

Chapter Text

Chapter 24: What Must Be Done

Gwen came to Lancelot in his dreams, surrounded by a hazy golden glow that seemed to chase the chill from the night air. His shivering began to subside and he slept more peacefully beneath the canopy of trees, soothed by memories of her soft, warm body in his arms.

He'd dreamed of her just about every night since leaving Camelot, recalling all the moments they'd shared in his unconscious mind. Longing looks and tender words, the texture of her skin as he'd kissed her hand, followed by the even sweeter softness of her lips as they'd met his for the first time.

Reliving that kiss again and again, he always marveled over how quickly her timidity had transformed into a hungry passion that matched his own. He could only wish...

No, it was pointless to wish anymore.

Thinking of her during his waking hours was always bittersweet. Pleasurable memories of holding her only made his empty arms ache with longing. Remembering the way she'd gazed up at him with her luminous dark eyes reminded him of just how dismal his world was without her.

As the months passed, thoughts of her were accompanied by the bleak realization that life was carrying him further away from any hope of seeing her again. It became increasingly difficult to trust in the future, to believe in fate or destiny as he once had. All he knew anymore was cold, hunger, and emptiness as he struggled to survive in a brutal world where he felt lost and utterly alone.

Only in his dreams did he find comfort, where memories of her were recollections of the sweetest kind, never followed by the hopeless reality of their indefinite separation.

He looked forward to falling asleep every night, just as he dreaded waking the following morning. Sometimes he wished he could sleep forever just to stay with her in his mind, but something always compelled him to rise and face another day.

But this time, his dream shifted; he was prostrate on his knees in the Council Chamber, while the king stared down at him in cold contempt.

"Take everything he has of any value," Uther spat coldly.

Yes, Uther had taken it all with his ridiculous codes and unbending judgments. Hopes and dreams, honor and dignity, faith and friends and love... a home and a life of purpose in Camelot. He'd stripped it away and worst of all, Lancelot had brought it on himself.

"Take the horse and the armor. Both seem to be of excellent quality. The sword, too, and whatever's in that bag. Take it, then kill him," Uther growled in a voice that didn't sound like Uther at all.

Lancelot stirred as Arthur appeared in his mind, looking as if he meant to protest. Yes, he thought with a great deal of comfort. Arthur will speak for me. He will not allow the king to...

But when Arthur opened his mouth to speak, all that came out was the nervous whinny of a frightened horse.


He was jolted into consciousness by an explosion of pain as a booted foot landed a brutal kick to his midsection. Gasping for air, he curled into a defensive position, raising his arms to shield his head as the stranger kicked him again and again, grunting in pain and confusion as he weakly attempted to fend off the blows.

"Ah, that's no fun, Ratface," spoke a voice from somewhere behind him. "Get him on his feet and let's see what he's made of."

The next thing Lancelot knew, rough, bruising hands were lifting him from the ground. He staggered a little as he found his footing, weakness and shock causing his knees to buckle before he managed to steady himself.

He was surrounded by five rough looking men clothed in ratty skins, filthy leathers and oddly mismatched bits of armor. The man who'd kicked him really did look like a rat, he noticed in vague amusement, tiny beady eyes and a narrow pointed nose set in a fleshy face. Even his teeth were rodent like – long, yellow and protruding over his fat lower lip.

Some reaction to the comical sight must have shown in Lancelot's expression, as Ratface suddenly gave a furious growl and punched him in the face with a meaty fist. Stunned by the blow, he fell heavily to the ground and lay still.

"Right," he heard another man speak as if from a great distance. "Ratface, Bull, you two stay here. Have your fun, then finish him off. Catch up when you're done. Snake and Buzzard, with me."

Don't any of these fools have real names? Lancelot wondered as he struggled to his knees, trying to clear his vision as he looked around for anything he might be able to use as a weapon. I refuse to die at the hands of a man called Ratface. I still have some dignity left.

His sword was beyond his reach, already being led away on the back of his horse along with his armor and the rest of his possessions. Trying not to despair, he spied a thick, sturdy branch a few feet away and began to crawl toward it.

"Look!" Bull said with a loud guffaw that rumbled deep in his massive chest. "Seems our friend here means to put up a fight!"

Ratface echoed his laughter. "Ah, let him have it. That scrap of kindling won't amount to much once we give him a taste of your mace and my daggers."

"How about it, skinny man?" Bull taunted, looking very much like his namesake as his eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared with excitement. "Looks like you haven't eaten in weeks. Hungry for a bit of my steel in your belly?"

Lancelot was on his feet now, branch gripped steadily in both hands as he moved into a familiar sparring position. He didn't respond to the baiting, just fixed the man with a quiet, unwavering stare.

Ratface let out a mocking laugh. "Fancy yourself a swordsman, eh? Mighty brave of you, but I'm afraid it'll do you little good, boy. You're about to learn what it's like to fight real men. We'll have you carved up like a pig in a butcher's shop by the time we're done with you."

Unable to help himself, Lancelot lifted an eyebrow. "If you're such impressive fighters, why does it require two of you to take on an unarmed man?"

Bull's face grew red with fury at the insult as he stepped forward, brandishing his mace. But Ratface just chuckled, holding out a restraining hand to stop his friend. "Lippy one, aren't you? Hell, you'll end up dead either way, so it makes no difference to us. One at a time it is – who do you want to fight first?"

"I don't care."

"How about Bull then? I've already had a crack at you; might as well give him a turn."

Lancelot nodded imperceptibly, his eyes narrowing as the man moved forward, baring his teeth and whirling his mace above his balding head. Without a flicker of movement, he waited, sizing up his opponent as the other man growled a menacing warning and swung.

The heavy ball of the mace flew harmlessly through empty air as Lancelot sidestepped on nimble feet, bringing his stick around in a wide arc that slammed into Bull's fleshy midsection with a heavy thud. The larger man gave a surprised grunt as he doubled over in pain.

Without hesitation, he brought his knee up in a lightning quick movement, hearing the crunch of bone as the brutal blow connected with Bull's face. The other man spit out blood and a couple of teeth when he lifted his head, roaring in fury as he swung his mace again.

Swing and miss, swing and miss. The blows were wild and poorly aimed, the product of uncontrolled rage rather than the careful calculations of a skilled warrior. Lancelot danced aside easily, almost pitying the man's ineptitude as his own strikes connected with meaty flesh.

He's as well named as his companion. Just like a bull, he's big and stupid, all temper and no common sense.

A bull was predictable and easy to avoid. Such was not the case for a rat. A rat was silent and sneaky, creeping around unseen and using all sorts of devious tricks to fool his opponents when they were at their most unsuspecting.

Ratface came up from behind, catching Lancelot off guard as a dagger sliced through the air. Managing to avoid the cut intended for his chest, the knife nicked his arm instead. So much for the honor of single combat, he thought in disgust as blood spilled from the wound.

There was barely time to take a couple swift steps backward before both men fell upon him. Completely on the defensive now, he weaved and danced, trying to avoid both mace swings and dagger strikes. Ratface was quicker and more accurate than his companion, but Lancelot quickly picked up on the predictable pattern of his movements and dodged them all.

Managing to temporarily stun Bull with another blow to the midsection followed by one across the back of the neck, he anticipated Ratface's next strike and brought his stick down on the man's forearm with a mighty crack. The dagger flew out of his hand, landing on the ground a few feet away.

Lancelot scrambled desperately for the weapon, falling to his hands and knees as Bull recovered and slammed into him with an impressive amount of force. Ratface grabbed at his ankles, attempting to drag him backward before he could reach the fallen dagger. With an angry grunt, Lancelot drove his heel forcefully into the other man's face with a satisfying crunch.

His fingers closed around steel, cool and sweetly familiar. Perhaps the blade wasn't the sword he would've preferred, but the fight had turned in his favor nonetheless.

Crouching on the ground and panting heavily, he clutched the dagger and fixed his opponents with a cold, unwavering stare. Steady and determined, he waited.

Bull was the first to fall. The huge, lumbering man rushed forward somewhat clumsily, falling to the ground with a heavy thud as Lancelot drove the dagger into his upper thigh. He lay on his back, struggling to rise as the fury in his eyes was replaced by helpless panic.

Had he been fighting according to the knight's code, Lancelot would have placed his weapon to Bull's chest and compelled him to yield. This was no melee or friendly sparring match, however, nothing that resembled honorable combat. This was a fight for his survival. Honor would not protect him here, nor could he allow it to shield his opponents. Kill or be killed. Do what must be done.

Sucking in a deep breath, he jerked the man's head back by his sparse hair and cut his throat.

He'd killed his first man.

There was no time to dwell on that, however, as Ratface pulled a second dagger from his boot and fell upon him with a flurry of stabs and slices. Blinded by fury and screaming in rage, his aim was poor, causing no more damage than the occasional shallow cut.

Lancelot twisted to the side to avoid the assault, thrusting his own dagger upward and burying it in the other man's chest with all the strength he had left.

Ratface's eyes widened. He mumbled something incomprehensible, then shuddered and grew still.

The clearing was silent, deafeningly so in the aftermath of the fight. At first, Lancelot couldn't even hear the whispering of wind in the trees or the soft rushing water of the river behind him. He stared at the bloodied bodies with a sort of detached exhaustion, drained, weak and shaky now that the adrenaline of combat had passed.

I've killed them. I killed them... and I don't regret it.

After giving himself a moment to recover a bit of strength, he rose and walked to the river's edge. Not only was he painfully thirsty, but the stink of blood was beginning to invade his nostrils and he needed to clean his wounds.

The still water gave off a clear reflection and at first, he thought someone had snuck up behind him. He started to reach for the bloodied dagger he'd tucked into the waistband of his trousers, before realizing with a great deal of shock that he was looking at an image of himself.

The man staring back at him bore no resemblance to the one who'd departed from Camelot all those months before. No, that man had ridden out in shining armor and a fine silk cloak, freshly shaved, groomed, and well fed, eyes still boyishly hopeful despite his recent disappointments.

But the stranger before him now was another person entirely. Gone was the slender, yet healthy physique that had once been his, replaced by a gaunt figure that seemed to be held together by muscle and sinew alone.

His dark hair hung past his shoulders now, limp and matted with dirt. A full beard covered the lower half of his face, thick and scraggly, and his skin had turned a deeper bronze from endless hours spent in the sun. There was nothing soft in his reflection anymore, the last remnants of boyhood having faded from his face, leaving nothing but hard planes and angles in their wake.

The most shocking change of all, however, was the look in his eyes. Eyes that had once been soft and gentle were now hard and hungry, devoid of hope and full of some grim emotion he couldn't quite put his finger on. Resignation, perhaps?

It didn't matter. His shabby appearance and filthy, bloodstained clothing would have to wait. He could only linger for a few minutes at most before he'd have to be on his way. The dead men's companions would be growing suspicious soon; he hoped to be long gone before they returned. There was no way he had enough strength left in him to fight one man, let alone three.

Washing as best as he could manage, it was a relief to discover that most of the blood was not his own. The few cuts he'd received were relatively shallow, and although the bruises that were beginning to appear on his face and midsection were painful to the touch, they were nothing to be concerned about.

He'd bathe properly and wash his only remaining clothing later. For now, he contented himself with clean hands and face, along with a long drink of water.

The other men had ridden south, so he'd follow the river north, keeping to the trees to remain out of sight. He started to turn back to retrieve his satchel, only to remember that all his possessions were gone.

Cursing under his breath, he wondered if there had been any point to surviving the fight at all. Perhaps it would've been better if he'd allowed the men to kill him. At least that would have been a quick death, rather than the slow starvation that gnawed at his belly like a vicious animal.

He'd been resigned to having to sell his horse or his armor in order to feed himself, but now, he didn't have a possession in the world to barter.

Glancing at the stiffening bodies, he took a deep breath and walked across the clearing, kneeling down to rifle through their pockets.

A knight never fights for profit, nor does he pillage his fallen opponents, he suddenly remembered from those codes he'd memorized by heart so many years before. To do so is the height of shame and dishonor.

"Damn your bloody codes!"

It was all well and good to live by codes if one was the son of some noble lord, never lacking for resources to keep his belly full and a roof over his head. Men like that could look down on plunder while devouring grand feasts, criticizing the idea of profit as they slept in the soft, warm beds that came along with their privileged status. What the hell did they know?

No, he would not feel guilty over this. If dying was the alternative to taking from men who had no further need of whatever coin they might be carrying. Codes meant nothing in the face of starvation... especially when they came from a world that barely existed for him anymore.

Bull's pockets were empty, but he found a small leather pouch hidden in Ratface's trousers. It was heavy, which was a good sign. He untied the drawstring and turned it upside down, gasping in disbelief as a handful of gold coins spilled out across his open palm.

Chapter Text

Chapter 25: Journey to Ealdor

As Gwen rode beside her friends on that brisk winter afternoon, she couldn't help but feel a rush of exhilaration. She hadn't ventured more than a few miles outside of Camelot's walls in years, having forgotten the thrill of traveling to places unknown.

It was only when she glanced back at Hunith that she gave herself a guilty shake, determined to quell her enthusiasm.

Our mission is to help the people of Ealdor, she reminded herself sternly. This journey had nothing to do with her own pleasure.

Merlin's mother was a lovely woman, warm, humble and kind… someone to which assistance should have been offered without question. Every time Gwen glanced over at her, wincing in sympathy when she saw the large welt on her cheek, she felt another stab of resentment toward the king for refusing to intervene in her hour of need.

Uther has so much power, she'd thought to herself in frustration as Hunith had fallen to her knees in the Council Chamber, injured, frightened, and pleading for help. He could find a way to protect these people if he truly wanted to. I know he could. How can anyone be so heartless?

Worse, Arthur hadn't even tried to change his father's mind. Gwen had been surprisingly disappointed in him for that. She'd expected better of him, having seen his acts of kindness toward Merlin, Lancelot, and even herself in the past. Despite his arrogance, she'd truly believed there was a strong sense of justice somewhere inside him. So why had he stood by and done nothing?

As night fell, the group stopped to make camp. Merlin cared for the horses as his mother prepared supper, humming quietly to herself as she worked. Gwen felt uncomfortable as she sat beside Morgana, unaccustomed to remaining idle while others saw to her needs. She offered to help several times, but Hunith wouldn't hear of it.

"It's the least I can do to repay you and the Lady Morgana for your support," she insisted. "Please, rest. You must be tired."

After supper, Gwen followed Morgana's lead as the other woman yawned hugely and pleaded exhaustion from the day's exertions. She wasn't the least bit tired herself, but her body ached from hours spent in the saddle; it felt heavenly to stretch out and relax.

Morgana mumbled a drowsy "good night" and dozed off almost immediately while Gwen lay wide awake, gazing at the stars as she listened to the sound of soft, deep breathing beside her.

Will I die tomorrow? she wondered. Will we all be cut down like those poor villagers who've already been lost?

She'd only faced the threat of death once, when Uther had falsely condemned her as a witch the year before. That had been a terrifying experience, praying for salvation as she'd waited in a cold, miserable dungeon cell, desperate to escape her fate.

What she felt now was entirely different.

She still didn't want to die… but the idea of losing her life in an attempt to defend what was right was much less frightening than the possibility of being executed for a crime she'd never committed in the first place.

At that thought, she began to understand what drove knights and soldiers to bravely risk their lives in the service of others. The idea of standing by and allowing tragedy to unfold when she might be able to help was unimaginable, just as it must be for them.

It was something she'd barely thought about while safe in Camelot, a kingdom that was faithfully defended by men who'd spent a lifetime training for combat... men who shielded humble people like herself from ever having to face any real danger.

Now, however, there were no defenses to protect her, no soldiers to rely upon. It was only Gwen and two of her dearest friends, heading out to face a brutal enemy. It should've been terrifying; instead, it felt strangely exhilarating.

The idea that she might be able to fight for justice while relying on her own physical strength to do so was something she'd never considered before. Whether she survived or not, knowing that it might be within her power to protect those who were even less capable of defending themselves than she was...

This must be how Lancelot felt, she mused to herself as her eyelids grew heavy. It was no wonder he'd wanted to be a knight, imagining how much he could do to make the world a better place with his considerable skill. She could only hope he'd found another way to fulfill that dream somehow, and that he was safe and happy, wherever he happened to be.

It was with some surprise and a great deal of guilt that she awoke the following morning to find Arthur sleeping beside the fire. The others moved quietly around the campsite, packing saddlebags and feeding horses as they allowed him to sleep up until the moment of departure.

"Followed our trail for half the night," Merlin whispered in explanation, giving the unconscious prince a look of gratitude and open affection. "He's here to help."

Arthur must've known the king would've never provided assistance, no matter what he might have said in protest. He'd decided to defy him instead, willing to put his life on the line to help protect Merlin's home. More than that, he was acting without the protection of his knights, and all because he refused to turn a blind eye to injustice.

I've judged him too harshly, she thought to herself with a great deal of shame. Only a truly noble man would risk so much for the sake of a servant, with no possible reward for himself other than knowing he'd done what was right.

In that moment, she resolved to stop jumping to unfair conclusions where Arthur was concerned. It was the least he deserved in light of such a selfless act.

As they came in sight of the seemingly peaceful village later that morning, the illusion was immediately shattered by the sound of panicked screams in the distance. Without a word, Arthur nudged his horse into a full gallop and tore across the open fields, leaving the others no choice but to follow his wild pursuit.

Ealdor was in chaos when they arrived, villagers struggling in vain against the violent onslaught of the looters who were making off with the last of their food supply. Gwen watched in awe as Arthur swung down from his horse in one fluid motion and came to blows with his first opponent.

He was soon joined by Merlin, who struggled awkwardly with his weapon, yet somehow managed to hold off several attackers. Morgana quickly dismounted and followed with her own sword in hand, making up for the years of training she lacked with fearlessness and natural grace.

All Gwen could do was stand beside Hunith, watching in horror as men and women alike were brutally shoved aside or cut down by the cruel raiders. She'd never seen anything so vicious in her life, nor even imagined such a thing. Her experience of combat up until that moment had been little more than the tournaments and friendly training sessions she'd witnessed back in Camelot.

What was happening in front of her bore no resemblance to an honorable fight. No, these were men who obviously enjoyed killing for the sake of it... men who seemed to go out of their way to cause as much suffering as possible. She watched helplessly as a hulking, bearded figure dressed in filthy skins rode down an unarmed woman, shouting gleefully as a blow to the back sent her sprawling into the dirt.

How can anyone be so cruel? she thought angrily, her disgust at the injustice overcoming her fear. In that moment, she would've gladly joined the fight if she'd had a weapon at her disposal.

The bandits were brutal in their attack, though it soon became obvious they didn't have enough men to battle a resistance they clearly hadn't expected. Riding away as swiftly as they'd come, they spat in derision and shouted all manners of curses and threats in their wake.

Bloody cowards, Gwen swore to herself with unaccustomed venom. They'd come here to attack defenseless villagers, not to fight anyone who actually had the power to stand up to their tyranny.

"I know Kanen's kind," Arthur announced as soon as the enemy was out of sight, looking over the listeners with an expression that was determined yet compassionate. "He'll be back. And when he is, you must be ready for him. First of all, we have to prepare for..."

His words were interrupted as a young man wearing a hostile expression pushed his way to the front of the small crowd. "Am I the only one wondering who the hell this is?"

"I don't understand why that man was so angry," Morgana remarked a few hours later as she and Gwen sat with Hunith in her tiny kitchen. "Everyone else seemed grateful for the help, eager to defend their homes. But he treated Arthur like he was the enemy. Why?"

Gwen exchanged a meaningful glance with Hunith as the older woman struggled to find a tactful way to answer the question. Of course, there were those among the common people who hated the nobility on principle. But how to explain this to Morgana, a royal herself, without causing offense?

"Lady Morgana, Will's father was killed while fighting for King Cenred. I'm afraid he's never quite recovered from the loss, though that's no excuse for his rude behavior. I apologize on his behalf."

Morgana frowned. "But what does that have to do with Arthur? Cenred is an enemy to Camelot, not our ally. Surely he can't hold any of us responsible for..."

"Oh!" Hunith suddenly exclaimed, finding a convenient excuse to change the subject. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize how late it was. The two of you must be hungry, and the boys will be back and wanting their supper any minute now."

The little cottage was largely silent as the five of them sat around the table, eating a simple meal of unseasoned chicken and boiled potatoes. Remembering her promise to stop judging him so harshly, Gwen tried not to notice Arthur's expression of distaste, nor the way he hastily shoveled food onto Merlin's plate whenever Hunith wasn't looking.

But it became impossible to ignore when he shoved an untouched bowl of porridge into her own hands the following morning. She tried to make excuses for him, reminding herself that he wasn't accustomed to such bland food. Of course, Morgana was every bit as privileged as Arthur was and she didn't seem to have any problem eating everything she was given.

After breakfast, Arthur set the two women to the task of gathering weapons and sharpening whatever blades could be found. It was a pleasant surprise to discover there were indeed enough to equip every man and then some... until Gwen came to the realization that the surplus only existed because there weren't many men to begin with.

How many would Kanen bring with him when he returned? Did it matter? No doubt they'd be brutal, seasoned fighters, making it difficult not to feel pessimistic as she and Morgana watched Arthur attempt to turn farmers, craftsmen, and shepherds into a defensive force.

"There's no way they're going to be able to hold Kanen off," Morgana said darkly, echoing her thoughts.

"Men aren't the only ones who can fight."

"My thoughts exactly. Arthur won't like it, but what choice does he have?"

"Do you think he'll forbid the women from taking part?"

Rolling her eyes, Morgana said, "What can he do? Report us to the king? Throw us in the dungeons? I think not, Gwen. Besides, you forget this is not his kingdom. None of us are under Arthur's command here. We follow him because we choose to, not because we must."

"I... well, surely it would be better if he agreed, so the women could benefit from the training as well?"

"Of course, and I hope we can convince him. Uniting as a single force is by far our best chance. But if he refuses to listen to reason, we'll just have to find another way somehow. I… oh, it looks like they're taking a break. Come on, Gwen."

"Looks like the battle's already fought and lost," she commented as they approached Arthur, keeping her voice low so the nearby villagers wouldn't hear.

"They'll toughen up," he said quietly, not meeting her eyes.

"They'll need to," Gwen blurted before before she could stop herself. Instead of chastising her or even giving her a stern look however, Arthur merely inquired about the weapons.

Morgana shrugged. "There isn't much, but we should be able to scrape together what you need."

"It's not the weapons that worry us. It's having enough people to use them. We think the women should be allowed to fight."

Gwen would've never imagined herself speaking to Arthur so boldly back in Camelot, but the situation was far too grave to worry about silly things like titles and proper protocol. Still, she was relieved when Morgana immediately backed her up.

"You haven't enough men. If they were trained soldiers, maybe you'd stand a chance, but they're not."

"It's too dangerous."

Before either of them could offer a word in protest, he'd already turned and walked away.

Gwen lay beside Morgana in the narrow bed they shared, silently fuming over Arthur's abrupt dismissal. Who was he to say who should be allowed to defend their homes, their family and friends? What gave him the right to make that decision for another person, woman or not?

She'd never known she felt so strongly about these things until she'd had to deal with them firsthand. There in the darkness, she thought again of Lancelot's desperate struggle just to be given the chance to stand up for what he believed in. He'd been denied because he was a commoner. Was that so different than where she found herself now, rejected simply because she wasn't a man?

Imagining herself hiding in the forest, her assistance refused just because someone had decided she was unworthy to fight left her feeling utterly powerless.

Before, she'd found it difficult to understand why Lancelot had felt obligated to leave Camelot. It made sense that he hadn't wanted to cause conflict between Arthur and the king, of course, but couldn't he have given up his quest for knighthood and found some other work right there in Camelot until he had a better opportunity?

Suddenly, she understood completely. The frustration at being turned away when her own ability to fight might make a difference... that feeling must have been a hundred times worse for Lancelot when he'd been denied the right to serve. After all, he was a born warrior.

Had he remained in Camelot, he would've been forced to watch countless times as the knights had ridden out to face some great peril, knowing his strength might be desperately needed, yet unable to do a thing about it. How much would it have hurt him to stand by helplessly in times of crisis, a man who'd spent the majority of his life training to defend others?

It was unimaginable... so painful that for the first time she was actually glad he'd chosen to leave. She still missed him desperately, of course, but the thought of him suffering through so much helpless frustration was difficult to bear. It was far more comforting to imagine him out in the world somewhere, living on his own terms and fighting for the greater good as he'd always been meant to do.

Resolving to speak with Arthur again in the morning, Gwen closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. Lancelot would have never given up so easily, and neither would she.

Chapter Text

Chapter 26: A New Beginning

It was close to nightfall when Lancelot saw the smoke rising in the distance. He'd followed the course of the river for three days, frequently stopping to rest as his body had grown weaker with hunger and weariness. There'd been no sign of civilization, only thickly wooded forest that had seemed to go on forever.

Somehow, he'd found the will to press on.

It was a cruel contradiction. He'd passed through countless towns and villages when he'd had no coin to spare to avail himself of their comforts. Yet now, with the heaviness of gold weighing down his pockets, he couldn't seem to find a place to spend it on the necessities he so desperately needed.

And then just as he'd resigned himself to another cold, hungry night spent huddled beneath the trees, he'd spotted the smoke. Already so weary he could barely put one foot in front of the other, he pushed himself to continue. Even the slightest possibility of a hot meal and a warm bed to sleep in was too much of a temptation to resist.

It's probably nothing, he kept telling himself, trying not to get his hopes up. Perhaps it was abandoned campfire or worse, one used by the kind of men who'd robbed him sseveral days before. It could be a natural fire, or any number of things that wouldn't help him at all.

As he drew closer, however, the haze of smoke began to separate into a scattering of smaller columns. He crested a rocky bluff, nearly collapsing in relief as he looked down on the village that was nestled in the valley below.

Shelter... food... warmth. The words echoed over and over in Lancelot's mind as he descended the hill. He stumbled and fell several times on his way down the steep slope, not even noticing the pain from the sharp rocks that cut into his knees and palms.

People stared at him as he entered the town, wild eyed and panting with exertion. He imagined he must be a disconcerting sight – ragged clothing that barely managed to cover his gaunt frame, filthy, matted hair and beard, arms and face a mess of scratches and purple bruises.

Probably smell even worse than I look, he thought idly, although he couldn't bring himself to care much either way.

The inn was easy to find. It was a large, ramshackle building bearing a crooked sign that read "The Sleeping Goat" in clumsy green letters. He opened the door and stepped inside, giving his tired eyes a moment to adjust to the dim, smoke filled room.

"What can I do for you?" questioned an older, heavyset barmaid with faded blonde hair. She eyed him suspiciously, watery blue eyes narrowing as she took in his shabby appearance.

Lancelot cleared his throat and spoke in a raspy voice. "A room, please. Food, whatever you have. And a tankard of mead."

She gave him a skeptical look. "You got the coin to pay for all that?"

He said nothing, just shook his pockets and watched the woman's expression change at the rattle of heavy coins.

"Very well," she said much more warmly. "You're a little late for supper I'm afraid, but I'm sure we can manage something. There's some stew left over from lunch and plenty of bread to be had, if you don't mind it being a little stale."

"That sounds wonderful," he responded with a polite smile. "Thank you."

She gave him a surprised look, clearly not expecting such courteous behavior from a man of his appearance. "Right, let me see to that then," she said in a voice that was almost kind. "Seat yourself anywhere you like. I'll be back shortly."

He chose a table in the corner, sinking into his chair with a sigh of relief. The barmaid returned with a tray a few minutes later, placing a large bowl of thick, meaty stew in front of him, along with several slices of bread and a frosty tankard of honey mead.

"Let me know if you need anything else," she told him amiably as she fished in the pocket of her apron and pulled out a small metal object. "Oh, and here's your key. Turn left at the top of the stairs and it'll be the third door on your right."

He nodded, mumbling his thanks around a mouthful of bread.

Lancelot hadn't had meat in weeks, nor anything even close to a decent meal. Forcing himself to eat slowly so his body had time to adjust, he savored every bite of the hot stew. Chunks of overcooked beef and a few unseasoned vegetables made for a bland supper, but it was filling. The bread was indeed stale, especially without honey or butter to soften the hard, dry crust. But he devoured every last crumb as if it were the best food he'd ever eaten.

After he'd finished and drained his tankard, he felt more like himself than he had in months. His full belly left him satisfied, drowsy and content, to the point that he was afraid he might pass out right there at the table.

Instead, he summoned a last bit of energy, stumbling up the stairs and locating his room, then locking the door behind him. Stripping off his ruined clothing, he collapsed on the narrow bed and immediately drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

He didn't wake again for nearly two days.

For several weeks, Lancelot stayed on at the inn. The barmaid, who introduced herself as Nessie, proved to be an immeasurable help as he gradually recovered from his long months of isolation and near starvation in the wilderness.

It was Nessie who managed to find him a set of clean clothes after his first bath, carrying away his bloodstained rags between thumb and forefinger and muttering something about feeding them to the fire. Little necessities mysteriously appeared in his room here and there, and she always seemed to include extra chunks of meat or slices of bread and cheese on his plate during meal time.

When he'd tried to thank her for her kindness, however, she'd only turned red with embarrassment, pretending she had no idea what he was talking about. "A hot meal in front of him and he's too busy running his mouth to eat it," she'd grumbled under her breath as she'd walked away. "It's no wonder he's so bloody skinny."

By the second week, the pair were fast friends. Nessie was gruff in manner, but it was obvious she had a soft heart beneath her rough exterior. She began sitting with him during meals whenever she was off duty, though when he'd tease her about seeking out his company, she'd snort and inform him that she was just resting her feet.

Lancelot never told her about his past, nor did she ask any questions. She mostly regaled him with harmless gossip about the townsfolk and talked about her husband, the local brewer. "Drinks more ale than he sells, the miserable sot," she'd grumble, though there was always a twinkle in her eye whenever she spoke of him.

He was greatly interested when Nessie mentioned that her husband's younger brother was the town blacksmith and by that afternoon, had acquired a battered, yet sturdy sword and a basic mail shirt. It was far from the finery Gwen's father had created, the loss of which still pained him, but it would certainly do well enough for the time being.

On his way back to the inn, he passed a cottage with a sign that advertised barber services within. He emerged an hour later with a fresh shave and closely cropped hair.

Nessie gave a loud whistle when he returned, startling several nearby patrons. "Well I'll be damned! Been wondering what you looked like under that disgusting rat's nest you tried to pass off as a beard. Now just put a little more meat on those bones and I might not even be able to call you ugly anymore!"

He took it for the compliment it was, grinning back at her on his way up the stairs.

Lancelot counted his few remaining coins later that night, sighing to himself as he did so. He'd paid for meals and a place to sleep these past few weeks, had bought a new satchel and basic supplies, as well as the sword and mail he'd acquired earlier that day. Nothing beyond necessities, though as cautious as he'd been, his money was almost gone.

The horse he'd hoped to buy was out of the question now; the most he could pay for was a couple more days of food and shelter.

What am I to do after that? Where will I go?

As he undressed for bed, he stopped to stare at himself in the cracked mirror that was nailed to the back of the door. He was still a little thin, but the frightful gauntness of starvation was gone. The sharp planes and angles of his face had begun to fill in a little and his scratches and bruises had healed. Even the desperate, hungry look in his eyes had faded, though they still held a hint of his recent sufferings.

I look almost healthy, he realized in amazement. I feel it, too.

The thought of returning to brutally cold nights, isolation and constant, gnawing hunger was too much to bear. He needed a plan, and quickly. Anything to put a few coins in his pocket, just enough to keep food in his belly and shelter over his head. Perhaps when the weather grew warmer, he'd be able to search for better opportunities.

For now, he could only hope there was some kind of work to be found here in this village. Perhaps Nessie would have an idea.

Comforted by that thought, he blew out the candle and crawled into bed.

The barmaid frowned thoughtfully as Lancelot explained his predicament. "So it's work you're wanting then? Little enough to be found around these parts; it's the dead of winter, you know. What are you good at? Not much, by the looks of you. Do you have any skills?"

"I can muck out stables, chop wood, repair buildings, mend fences..."

She interrupted him with a snort. "Yes, you and every other able-bodied man and half grown boy in five kingdoms. Afraid that's not going to help you much. Do you know how to do anything else? Do you have a trade?"

He shook his head, trying not to appear as hopeless as he was beginning to feel. "All I've ever done... well, it doesn't matter."

Nessie's eyes were suddenly compassionate. "In my line of work, I've learned it's best not to ask too many questions. Don't want to cross a line that could get me killed, you see. But you don't seem the type that normally passes through these parts. You're not a bandit or a mercenary or someone on the wrong side of the law, are you?"

"No," Lancelot responded quietly. "Only a man who's fallen on difficult times, that's all."

"I can see that," she said as she rose to her feet. "Well, I'll ask around. Not promising anything, but I'll ask."

"Thank you, I'm very grateful… not only for this, but for all the help you've given me. You've been more than kind."

She snorted again, waving away the praise with a flush of embarrassment. "No idea what you're going on about. I've got to get back to work. Why don't you go outside and walk around a bit instead of bothering me all day? The fresh air will do you good."

It was an unusually lovely day for winter, the sky a brilliant blue instead of the dull, leaden gray that was common this time of year. The air still carried a biting chill, but it didn't seem so bad after a hot breakfast... almost pleasant when Lancelot slid on the warm woolen jacket Nessie had given him the week before.

"Just lying around taking up space," she'd insisted carelessly when he'd tried to thank her. "Gets in my way, it does. Do what you want with it. Feed it to the fire for all I care. Long as I don't have to bother with it anymore."

Lancelot smiled at the memory, breaking into an outright grin as he wondered how poor Nessie would fare in the palace at Camelot. If his own mild courtesies were enough to cause her so much embarrassment, he could only imagine how she'd react in a place where people barely said two words to one another without including a lavish compliment or expression of gratitude.

It was strange that life could change so drastically in a matter of weeks. He could think about Camelot now, of Gwen, Merlin, and Arthur, even dwell on his failed quest for knighthood without the awful pain the memories had brought when he'd been alone in the wilderness. Imagining himself on the brink of death, he'd grieved for things that had seemed lost forever.

Now, he was beginning to feel hope again. It wasn't the blind optimism of the boy he'd been when he'd arrived in Camelot, believing he was in complete control of his destiny. No, it was the new realization that life was far too unpredictable to say what might be possible... today, tomorrow or in the distant future.

He touched the sword that hung at his waist and smiled. How long had it been since he'd wielded a proper weapon? Not since he'd left Camelot more than half a year before, he realized with a sudden rush of anticipation.

There were no training dummies to be found in such a small village, so he headed to the edge of the nearby forest, locating a tall, sturdy oak tree that was about the right size. Striking solid wood would result in hours spent laboring with the whetstone later, but it would be worth it.

Smiling to himself, he moved into his preferred stance and launched into a series of attacks that were as familiar to him as breathing. He'd forgotten nothing over the previous few months, though his movements weren't quite as swift as they'd once been, and he felt his muscles beginning to ache far sooner than he might have expected.

I've grown soft and lazy, he scolded himself as he pushed himself to continue through his weariness. From now on, I'll find a way to train every day. This is the one thing I cannot lose.

"Very impressive, boy," spoke a voice behind him, and too late, he realized that swordplay wasn't the only area where he was out of practice. Instincts that had once been sharp as a dagger had grown dull, allowing someone to sneak up on him without his knowledge.

He whirled around, feeling a chill creep up his spine as he recognized the man.

"Remember me, do you?" the bandit said with a humorless smirk. "I remember you, too, though you're looking a bit better than the last time I saw you. Been doing well for yourself on that stolen gold, haven't you?"

Lancelot gave him a defiant look. "I didn't steal any gold. The man was dead, and at any rate, perhaps its compensation for what was taken from me."

That was met with a harsh chuckle. "Dead, the both of them. Yes. Seems I underestimated you. Don't worry – I won't be making that mistake again."

Just as Lancelot tensed his muscles, preparing to move forward and attack, the bandit shot him a black toothed grin and gave a loud whistle. Shadows fell over him from all sides and he found himself surrounded by half a dozen men, barbed maces and brutal looking clubs at the ready.

"You know what to do," the leader snapped.

There was no time to consider the hopelessness of the situation as he was attacked from all sides. All he could do was fight. Putting up a valiant effort, he was satisfied when two, maybe even three of the men lay unmoving at his feet. Thrust and parry, duck and swing. There wasn't a man among them who didn't carry a wound he'd inflicted.

Had he not been so out of practice, he might have defeated them all. Instead, he grew weary under the seemingly endless onslaught. One misstep and he was on the ground, his foot having slipped on a patch of blood slicked grass. His sword flew out of his hand and he lay there unarmed, staring helplessly at the three grinning faces above him.

With a brutal blow of a club to the side of the head, his world went black.

Chapter Text

Chapter 27: Unanswered Questions

"Guinevere," Arthur said with a small nod as he passed her in the corridor.

Nearly dropping the basket of laundry in her arms, she stared after him in amazement. He'd treated her differently ever since their return from Ealdor a couple months before, but this was the first time he'd actually spoken to her.

The change had been subtle – an occasional grunt of thanks when she filled his cup at supper or a curt nod in her direction whenever he visited Morgana's chambers. It wasn't much, really, but even the smallest gestures were a pleasant surprise when coming from a man who'd always treated her as if she were invisible.

For her part, she'd largely kept her word to stop being so critical of him. She'd found that to be easier than she'd imagined after witnessing how much he'd done to help the citizens of Ealdor defeat the bandits who'd been causing them so much grief. Arthur had fought alongside them as equals, treating both men and women with courtesy and respect.

But the most surprising moment of all had been when she'd scolded him for turning his nose up at the simple food they were served in the village. He'd accepted her criticisms gracefully, even thanking her for speaking out.

She'd thought of that many times since their return, wondering where she'd gotten the nerve to speak to him that way, then finding herself amazed all over again that he'd taken it so well.

How would Uther have reacted if a servant had openly criticized his behavior like that? Gwen was sure she would've been publicly shamed, then sent straight to the dungeons... and that was if the king happened to be feeling generous that day.

Fortunately for her, Arthur had proven himself to be a very different man, capable of fairness and even humility when dealing with commoners such as herself.

He still irritated her when she overheard him boasting to one of the knights or saying something insulting to Merlin. Even so, she was starting to think he wasn't quite the arrogant bully she'd always believed him to be. He was beginning to show what she'd always suspected... that he had a good heart underneath it all.

"Ah, thank you, Gwen," Morgana smiled as she entered the chamber carrying the basket of clean laundry. "If you'll just put that away, you can take the rest of the day off."

"But my lady, it's only noon," she responded, blinking in surprise.

Morgana waved a dismissive hand. "I can't think of any chores that can't wait until tomorrow. Besides, Uther has requested my presence in the Council Chamber this afternoon. I might have to stand around listening to the king talk about boring things, but that doesn't mean I need to drag you along with me. Go and enjoy a little time to yourself."

Gwen made her way through the dim corridors of the palace and out into the street, overjoyed at the unexpected freedom. It was a beautiful, pleasantly mild day, as warmth from the afternoon sun chased any lingering chill from the air.

It'll be spring soon, she realized as she wandered through the lower town. With a happy smile, she imagined blooming flowers, gentle rain, and the fresh green of awakening trees. Spring had always been her favorite season... she loved watching the world come back to life and renew itself every year.

When she arrived home, she threw the windows open and set to work – scrubbing the house from top to bottom, washing dishes, dusting cupboards and shelves, then dragging the bedding outside to air out in the fragrant breeze. It might be a little early for spring cleaning, but the temptation of a fresh home after the staleness of winter was impossible to resist.

As she stooped to run a broom under the bed, she frowned when she noticed a ball of blue fabric wadded up in the corner near the wall. Shaking off the dust, she held it in front of her, staring at it in consternation.

Lancelot's shirt. How long had it been there? A few weeks... perhaps longer? Strange that she'd forgotten all about it after clinging to it so fiercely during the first few months following his departure.

Traces of his scent still lingered in the fabric when she brought it to her nose, much more faint than they'd been the last time she remembered having done this. After a moment, she sighed wistfully, then carefully folded the shirt and packed it away in a box.

She still found herself thinking of him at times, though not with the constant, desperate longing she'd felt in the beginning. There was no denying she still had feelings for him... but as time passed, it was becoming easier to bury those emotions somewhere deep inside and put them from her mind.

When he did intrude upon her thoughts these days, she was obligated to face the truth. It had been nearly eight months since he'd left and he hadn't sent so much as a word. Part of her worried that he'd fallen upon some misfortune, but she knew it was much more likely that he'd simply moved on with his life.

If he still had any intention of returning, wouldn't he have written by now? Wouldn't he have found a way to send her a letter? Couldn't he have at least gotten some message to Merlin, letting him know he was all right? Merlin had promised to tell her if he heard anything... but it had been months since he'd even mentioned Lancelot's name.

No... deep in her heart, she was beginning to realize that she'd have to put her feelings aside. What use was there in waiting for a man who was unlikely to ever return?

Giving herself a shake, she pushed the dismal thought away and glanced down at the carpet beneath her feet, deciding it could use a good beating. She dragged it outside and set about the task, finding herself soothed by the rhythmic pounding as her mind returned to more practical things.

After this, maybe I'll go beyond the city gates and see if there are any wildflowers in bloom, she mused to herself. It might be a little early yet, but it would be nice to have a few to freshen up the house.


Startled, she jumped as her father's head popped over the rug in front of her. How had he managed to sneak up on her so quietly?

"Did I surprise you?" he asked with a playful grin.

"You most certainly did!" she exclaimed, responding to his cheerful mood with a smile of her own.

"I've got another surprise for you, too," he said, eyes warm and gentle as he handed her a tiny object wrapped in a bit of cloth.

She opened it curiously, revealing a beautiful silver button engraved with a star. It was sweet of him to bring her something so pretty, but what on earth was she supposed to do with a single button that didn't match anything else she owned?

"It's... lovely," she murmured, hoping he wouldn't notice the skepticism in her voice.

The next thing she knew, he was saying something about needing spares as he held up an exquisite gown, crafted from the some of the finest wool she'd ever seen. Gasping in amazement, she reached out to touch it, admiring the softness of the brightly dyed fabric beneath her fingertips.

"It's beautiful!"

"Well, you're a beautiful girl, Gwen. You deserve beautiful things."

Any concerns she voiced about the cost of such an extravagant gift were waved away as if they were of no importance. There was some hinting about a change in fortune without further explanation, followed by reassurances that she had nothing to worry about as he kissed her on the cheek and informed her he wouldn't be home until late that night.

After that, all she could do was worry.

Tom was a wonderful man, kind, loving and generous to friends and strangers alike, without a cross word for anyone. Unfortunately, his best qualities were also his biggest downfall, as he was open and trusting with everyone who crossed his path.

Gwen was far more cautious by nature, which sometimes led her to feel as if she were the parent and he the child. More than once, she'd had to discourage him from making an impractical purchase they couldn't afford or found herself having to intervene to prevent him from accepting customers that had taken advantage of other merchants in the city.

In the past, however, her father had always been straight with her about his plans and schemes. He'd never withheld the truth, even when he'd known it would meet with her disapproval. So why the sudden secrecy?

Gwen frowned at his retreating back, then carried her new dress inside.

Lancelot opened his eyes and stared up at the stone ceiling above him, blinking in confusion as he slowly became aware of his surroundings.

Stone? No, that wasn't right. The inn where he'd slept these past few weeks was a simple building with a roof of thatch and walls of wood. That place always smelled of roasting meat and wood smoke, not cedar and fresh herbs.

Where am I?

Bewildered, he rose up on his elbows and looked around the spacious chamber, not recognizing the heavy furniture or the finely embroidered tapestries on the walls. The bed was much larger than any he'd ever slept in, covered in fine sheets and thick, luxurious furs.

As he sat up to reach for the cup and pitcher he spotted on the nightstand, he suddenly realized that he was completely naked beneath the blankets. But his momentary concern over that was immediately eclipsed by a sharp pain that shot through his head as he shifted into a sitting position.

What...? He gingerly pressed his fingers to a large knot just above his ear.

Suddenly, it all came rushing back... his impromptu sword practice, followed by hard fighting against the group of bandits who'd ambushed him from behind. The last thing he could recall was a nasty looking club being swung at his head as he lay helpless on the ground at their feet.

I should be dead, he realized, becoming more confused by the second. Even if they hadn't decided to finish him off right then and there, wouldn't they have left him in the woods to die? Why was he alive then? And what was he doing in what appeared to be a fortress of some sort?

"H-hello?" he meant to call out in a loud voice, though it emerged as only a hoarse whisper. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "Hello, is anyone there?"

Realizing he was naked, weaponless, and completely vulnerable made him nervous, but as his eyes shifted to the potions and bandages that littered the nightstand, he reminded himself that anyone who'd gone to such pains to care for his injuries surely meant no harm.

There was a shuffle of footsteps, and then the chamber door opened to reveal an elderly man with a bald head and a hooked nose. His face seemed to fixed in a permanent scowl, though his faded gray eyes were kind as one corner of his mouth flickered in what Lancelot assumed must be a smile.

"Ah, awake at last!" he exclaimed in a high, reedy voice. "We were beginning to think it would never happen."

There were so many questions flying around in his head that he hardly knew where to begin. "How long have I been here?" he asked, choosing one at random.

"About a week," the man said. He crossed the room and reached out to examine the wound, clicking his tongue in disapproval as Lancelot instinctively recoiled.

"Yes, and I've been caring for you all this time. Let me see to your wound, boy. I mean you no harm. Could've killed you a hundred times by now if I'd had a mind to."

He mumbled an apology, trying not to wince as the man's gnarled fingers began to probe at his tender flesh. "A week? How can that be? Is the wound really so severe?"

"No, not the head. But the other injury had already festered when they brought you in. High fever and a nasty infection. You were in and out of consciousness for days, delirious and raving like a madman as often as not. Doubt you'd remember."

"No, I don't," he admitted as the man lifted the blanket, revealing a heavily bandaged thigh. He made an effort not to squirm as the wound was unwrapped and redressed, trying not to notice how dangerously close the long, neatly stitched gash was to his groin.

A few more inches and... he didn't even want to think about it.

"Healing nicely now. You'll be fine in a few days, but until then, you'll have to stay in bed and rest. Haven't had nothing but herbs mixed with honey since you got here. Need to get some real food in you to get your strength back."

"Thank you," Lancelot said politely. "Can you tell me where I am? Why am I here? It's not that I don't appreciate your assistance, but..."

The old man shook his head. "Orders are to let the master explain. He returns on the morrow. Don't worry, you'll come to no harm while you recover. Just eat and rest for tonight and your questions will be answered soon enough. I'll have some food sent up."

After the man left, it was only a matter of minutes before a young girl with bright red hair entered the room on silent feet, carrying a steaming platter. Lancelot tried to speak to her, but she kept her eyes averted, saying nothing as she served him a plate full of roasted venison, boiled vegetables, and fresh baked bread with butter and honey.

He ate a little, slept and then ate again, giving his long empty stomach time to adjust to the rich food. Finally finishing the meal a few hours later, he was beginning to feel a little stronger. Restlessness overtook him then, along with an intense longing to rise and wander about the fortress so he might have a better idea of his surroundings.

No... the old healer had advised him to stay in bed and he certainly didn't want to do anything that might prolong his recovery in such an unfamiliar place.

He let out a heavy sigh and lay back against the pillows. Closing his eyes, he tried to lose himself in sleep again, but his mind wouldn't rest. He stared out a nearby window for a time, gazing at the moon as he imagined a dozen reasons he might've been brought here. None of them made the least bit of sense.

As he shifted from his side to his back, he felt the stitches in his thigh pull, reminding him of his earlier anxiety about the location of the wound. Suddenly filled with irrational fear, he reached beneath the covers and wrapped a hand around himself.

The blade hadn't touched him there... but what if the close proximity of the wound had somehow damaged his ability to perform? Tentatively, he moved his fingers up and down in a familiar rhythm.

Nothing happened.

He repeated the motion more forcefully for a few minutes, dismayed as he looked down to find himself soft and useless. With a sinking feeling, he realized this much stimulation had quickly brought him to full arousal many times in the past.

No... fate could not be so cruel. He'd never even lain with a woman! Always putting aside his desires of the moment, he'd somehow managed to hold out for a time when it might mean something more than passing physical pleasure. Imagining his patience might be rewarded with permanent failure was unbearable to even think about.

Dropping his hand in defeat, he stared moodily out the window.

Chapter Text

Chapter 28: Greytower

"Lancelot..." the familiar voice spoke in a soft whisper, sending a shiver of longing through his body.

She lay beneath him on the rich furs, dark curls tumbling in disarray across the pillow. Breathless, he searched her face as she gazed up at him with eyes full of passion, luminous in the candlelit chamber. She wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close as her delicate fingers trailed restlessly down his bare back. He closed his eyes with a shuddering sigh.

"Gwen..." he heard himself say, the words coming out hoarse and uneven. "Are you sure?"

She just smiled in response, curling her fingers into the hair at the back of his neck as she urged his lips down to meet hers...

Lancelot was fully hard when he awoke, restless and aching with an unsatisfied hunger. Clinging fiercely to the blissful sensations of the dream, he didn't even open his eyes as he pushed the blankets aside and reached down to pleasure himself.

Gwen... his hand moved slowly at first, almost leisurely, as he remembered the softness of her eyes and the sweet taste of her mouth. But recalling the intoxicating passion of the kisses they'd shared soon prompted a firmer grip as his breath became ragged and uneven.

Vividly, the memory of her soft body pressed against his came rushing back, making him groan aloud as he increased both speed and friction. Close, so close... his motions became frenzied as he remembered the way she'd set his flesh afire with longing wherever they'd touched.

If she'd had such an effect on him through thick padding and heavy armor, what must it be like to lie naked with her, with nothing but bare skin between them? Just the thought of it was enough to drive him mad with pleasure.

Biting his lip to hold back the gasps and groans his throat begged to release, he shifted to his side, burying his face in the pillows as his body spasmed in the throes of a powerful climax.

Feeling pleasantly lethargic in the aftermath, he lay quietly and allowed his breathing to return to normal. Laughing softly, he remembered his fruitless struggle to arouse himself the night before, immediately followed by the concern that he was damaged beyond repair.

Of course it didn't work. I was thinking of nothing beyond my own fear. I should've just…

Startled, he snatched the covers over himself as the chamber door opened, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw it was only the old healer. Despite his unanswered questions, he didn't feel quite ready to face the mysterious "master" that had been mentioned the previous night.

"You all right, boy? Thought I heard some sort of grunting in here. Can give you something for the pain if you need it."

"Y-yes. I mean, no," he stammered in embarrassment, before pausing to clear his throat. "What I mean is, yes, I'm all right and no, I don't need anything for the pain. I hardly feel it anymore."

Peering at him suspiciously, the healer shuffled a few steps closer. "You sure? Looks like you've been sweating and it ain't warm in here. Hope that fever isn't back."

"No, no," Lancelot said hastily. "I'm feeling much better this morning, thank you. I just had a bad dream, that's all. I'm sorry if I disturbed you."

"Was headed this way anyway. Wanted to make sure you were well enough to meet the master later this morning. He's eager to see what he's purchased."

"Purchased?" Lancelot repeated with a frown of consternation. "I don't understand."

"Oh, me and my big mouth," the healer gasped, backing out of the room. "Forget I said anything. Millie will bring you breakfast and some clean clothes here shortly. I must go."

"Wait! Can you at least tell me...?" But the door had already closed with a loud thud before he could finish the thought.

He soon discovered that Millie was the redheaded girl who'd brought his supper the night before. She was even more timid and silent this morning, serving him a thick slice of ham, eggs, and a mug of cold cider while pretending not to hear his numerous questions.

After he'd eaten, she brought him a steaming bucket of water, soap, and a washing cloth. She started to pull back the blankets herself, but Lancelot shook his head and moved into a sitting position. "No, I am not that helpless. I can do it myself, thank you."

Millie obliged, keeping her back turned while he sponged himself off, then struggled into the clean shirt and trousers she'd brought. She would not relent when he reached for the razor in her hand, however, taking a quick step backward as an anxious expression flitted across her face.

"Please," he said in a gentle voice. "I don't know what you've been told, but I would never harm you. Even if my legs were strong enough to carry me, you'd have nothing to fear. I just want to..."

She recoiled as he reached for the razor a second time, shaking her head vehemently as she pointed at herself.

Lancelot sighed in resignation, then flashed a smile in her direction. "All right, have it your way. Shall I allow you to tie me up as well? Would that be enough to believe I'm harmless?"

Millie didn't react to the joke, keeping her eyes lowered as she seated herself on the edge of the bed and began to scrape the whiskers from his face.

"Thank you," he said quietly as she worked. "For this, and for all your help."

She glanced up at him for a brief moment, and he realized with some surprise that she was quite pretty. It had been difficult to tell what she looked like with the way the thick mass of copper hair had shielded her tiny freckled nose, small mouth, and wide gray eyes. She might not be a stunning beauty, but there was something sweet about her face that made up for any shortcomings.

"Why will you not speak to me?" he asked, his voice soft and entreating. "What are you afraid of?"

"Master wouldn't like it," she mumbled under her breath, then rose abruptly and began to gather his dishes and bathing supplies. She avoided his eyes as she hurried back and forth, carrying the items from the room and returning with clean bedding and a fresh chamber pot.

The tread of approaching footsteps suddenly echoed in the hallway, too swift and heavy to be the slow shuffle of the old healer. Lancelot felt a shiver of fear in the pit of his stomach, though that was nothing compared with Millie's reaction as she froze and stared at the door in stark terror.

He burst into the chamber without warning, a large, imposing man with narrow black eyes, closely cropped black hair, and a thick black beard that was grizzled with gray. Dressed from head to toe in rich furs, fine brocades, and a wealth of jewels, he made an impressive sight as he strode over to the bed and stared down at Lancelot.

"Don't look like much, do you?" he said, raising a thick black eyebrow. Behind him, Lancelot saw Millie slip from the room, silently closing the door behind her.

"I..." He gulped, trying to think of a proper response.

"Do you know where you are? Who I am? Why you're here? What have they told you?" The questions were fired at him one after another as the man settled himself into a large chair and pulled it closer to the bed.

"N-nothing, my lord," Lancelot stuttered. "Only that I'd been unconscious for a week, but that my wounds were healing nicely. They said you'd answer any further questions I might have."

"Pleased to know my instructions were followed for once. You're right to address me by my proper title. I am Lord Elbert. Your name...?"

"My name is Lancelot."

"Well, Lancelot, welcome to Greytower. Through my generosity, your life has been saved. You've been given food, shelter, and clothing, and have received treatment at the hands of one of the finest healers in the kingdom. Tell me, how do you feel about that?"

"I am very grateful to you, my lord. But..."

"But you wonder why I did it," Lord Elbert finished with a chuckle. "Why would I go to so much trouble on behalf of a man who had nothing to offer in return?"

Lancelot nodded.

"Well, there you have your answer. I am not a charitable man. Most rich men aren't, you know, else they wouldn't be rich in the first place." He paused to laugh at his own joke. "It must be clear that you have something I want."

"But I have nothing," Lancelot protested as he frowned in confusion. "I'm no one."

"Ah, that's where you're wrong. From what I understand, you're quite talented with a sword. Exceptionally so."

"Whatever you heard must have been exaggerated, my lord. Either that or you have the wrong person. I am not that..."

"Are you not the man who was set upon by a group of bandits right outside the village of Oakview? Didn't you send three of them to their deaths and leave the others seriously wounded before falling yourself?"

"I didn't mean to cause any harm," Lancelot said quietly as he conceded the point. "I did not provoke them. They attacked me. I was left with no choice but to defend myself."

"Relax," Lord Elbert said with a chuckle. "I don't expect you to answer for your actions. Yellow bellied cowards got what they deserved, as far as I can tell. Nasty business, ganging up on a lone man the way they did. That's no way to fight."

Relieved, he nodded in agreement.

"Three of those men were considered the most dangerous fighters for fifty leagues in all directions. They've been a menace this territory for years, committing all sorts of vile atrocities I won't even speak of. Thanks to you, two of them are dead and the third will never raise his sword arm again."

Lancelot began to smile. Whether he'd realized it at the time or not, he'd done an honorable thing that would spare many innocent lives in the future. The thought filled him with a sense of pride and satisfaction.

"You didn't know who it was you faced? Well, I suppose it's no surprise. I can tell from your accent that you don't come from these parts. No matter. The point is, that fight stands as proof of your exceptional skill. And it's that skill I need."

"My lord, I don't know what to say."

"Well, let me tell you the rest. I'm sure you've wondered how you came to be here. One of the men who survived was wise enough to recognize an opportunity when he saw it. He brought you to me, demanding a pretty sum in exchange for your life. After sending some of my men to verify the truth of his story, it was a price I happily paid."

"I am humbled by your generosity. Thank you, I owe you my life. I'm happy to repay that debt with whatever service I might provide."

Lord Elbert gave him a searching look. "Do I have your word on that?"

Lancelot nodded in assent, feeling overjoyed as he imagined himself serving among Lord Elbert's household guard. Perhaps he couldn't be a knight anytime in the near future, but defending the realm of a high lord wasn't so very far from it.

Two weeks later, fully recovered and well-nourished by the rich food the ever silent Millie brought to his chamber three times a day, Lancelot was bidden to appear in the training yard. Lord Elbert himself equipped him with a mail shirt and a sturdy sword, giving him a hearty slap on the back as he set him against his first opponent.

"Show us what you've got, boy!"

Eager to prove himself, Lancelot had the first man on the ground with the point of his sword to his chest in a matter of seconds. The second went down almost as quickly, though the third required a few minutes of real effort before he was forced to yield.

One by one, Lancelot bested every man who faced him, drenched in sweat and breathing hard by the end of it all. As Lord Elbert applauded and let loose a loud whoop, he looked up in amazement to see twelve defeated men sitting on the sidelines.

"A champion indeed! Get Lancelot here a hot bath and see to it that he's escorted to my chambers for supper tonight. We have much to talk about!"

Lancelot stripped off his sweaty clothes and sank blissfully into the steaming tub, sighing in pleasure as the ache of tired, overworked muscles began to melt away. He scrubbed himself from head to toe as the water began to cool, then dried off and pulled on a pair of fine woolen trousers.

It was Millie who came to escort him to Lord Elbert's chambers a few minutes later. She stood waiting beside the door as he pulled on his boots, but made no move to open it as he rose to follow her. Twisting the folds of her dull gray skirt, she looked up at him for the briefest instant, then returned her gaze to the floor.

"Did you wish to say something?" he prodded gently.

He was taken by surprise as she suddenly met his eyes directly, giving him a bold, searching look that made him feel as if he were the timid one. As she studied his face, she seemed to find what she was looking for. She took a deep breath, then opened her mouth to speak.

"You're a good man, aren't you?"

Caught off guard by the question, he hesitated and cleared his throat before responding. "I try to be. I'm far from perfect and have made wrong choices but..."

"No, I see the kindness in you. I'm not wrong, am I? No, don't answer. I've seen so little of it in my life that it's impossible to miss when it actually appears. You have an honorable heart."

"Well, thank you," he replied, touched by her generous assessment.

She took a couple of hesitant steps closer, peering up into his face. "I've been in and out of this chamber several times a day for two weeks now. Not once have you groped or harassed me. Not once have you even spoken an unkind word."

"No." Lancelot gave her a puzzled frown. "Why would I? What reason have you ever given me to mistreat you?"

Nodding in satisfaction, Millie lowered her voice as she spoke again. "I'm taking a great risk, but listen to me. You need to leave and leave quickly. If you take the back corridor, there'll only be three or four guards you'll have to slip past before you're free. "

"I can't do that," he said, confused by her urgency. "I gave Lord Elbert my word that I'd repay him for all his assistance in whatever way I can. I cannot break that promise."

Her eyes flashed with anger and frustration. "What good are promises to a man like him? He'd use you without a second thought, don't you see? He thinks of his own selfish purposes and nothing else. It's no matter to him whether you live or die, as long as he gets what he wants."

"But I owe him..."

"You owe him nothing! You don't understand what…" but then she trailed off abruptly at the sound of approaching footsteps. Shaking her head in resignation, she opened the door to reveal the guard who was waiting on the other side.

"Lord Elbert grows impatient," the man said gruffly. "He's asked me to inform him if his new champion is being distracted with the mindless chatter of a servant. If so, he says to tell you there will be consequences, girl."

Lancelot grew uneasy as he watched Millie's eyes widen in fear, taken aback when he realized that most of her anxiety was directed at him. Did she think he'd break her trust, revealing the words that had just passed between them?

"There's no need for that," he told the guard in a smooth voice. "It was my fault – I fell asleep in the bath. Had Millie not woken me when she did, I might have missed supper entirely. Don't worry, I intend to beg Lord Elbert's pardon as soon as I see him."

"Very well," the guard said, giving him a curt nod. "If you'll follow me..."

As he walked out the door, Lancelot couldn't resist giving Millie a conspiratorial wink. When he looked back over his shoulder, she was staring after him in amazement.

Chapter Text

Chapter 29: The Price of Surrender

"More ale, damn you!" Lord Elbert bellowed in a cheerful voice. "Can't you see we're thirsty?"

A serving boy with a tangled mop of blond hair detached himself from the wall and scurried over, retrieving a pitcher and filling both of their cups to the brim.

"W-will there be anything else, my lord?" he questioned with an awkward bow.

"Hmm... oh yes, I know. Why don't you climb under the table and suck on my cock for a bit? How does that sound?"

Lancelot's eyes widened in shock as the boy sputtered and turned a bright shade of red. "M-my lord? You want me to...?"

"Yes indeed," Lord Elbert said with a satisfied nod. "And after you're finished with me, you can service my guest here. What do you think, Lancelot? Seems like a fine idea, does it not?"

"My lord, I don't think..." he cast about awkwardly, trying to come up with a refusal that wouldn't offend the other man. "I don't want... no, thank you, my lord."

Leaning closer, his host peered at him with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. "Not into boys, eh? Big mistake, my friend. One hot mouth sliding up and down on your cock feels just as good as another. Here, let me show you. Come here, boy!"

Lancelot rose abruptly, knocking his chair over in his haste to escape the uncomfortable situation. "I-I'm sorry, I must excuse myself. The food was wonderful, but I'm very tired after the practice session today. I should seek my bed before I fall asleep right here at the table."

Lord Elbert suddenly roared with laughter, spitting a mouthful of ale all over his fine tunic. "Sit down, sit down! Bloody hell, don't either of you know a joke when you hear one? Where's your sense of humor?"

Casting a relieved glance at the boy, Lancelot felt a sharp stab of resentment as he noticed the terror in his eyes.

Nonetheless, he knew it was expected and so he laughed politely. A little too much ale affecting his judgment, perhaps, he tried to reassure himself as Lord Elbert dismissed the servant. I'm sure he didn't mean any harm.

"Well, Lancelot, now that we've had some fun, let's talk about important things. Impressive work out in the yard today. Impressive indeed! Your skill with a sword is well worth the money I spent, right down to the last copper. Let's discuss how we can use that skill to our advantage, shall we?"

He nodded, trying his best not to appear too eager.

Lord Elbert gave him a sly look. "First, why don't you tell me how you think you might be best able to serve me? I'd be interested to learn what ambitions you have for yourself."

For a man as humble as Lancelot, it was an uncomfortable question to answer. "Well, my lord, I'd hope to have the honor of serving in your household guard if it seemed appropriate to reward me with such a position."

"Are you mad?"

"I-I didn't mean I expected it to just be given to me. I know I'd have to earn the opportunity, just like any other man..."

Lord Elbert howled in amusement, sputtering and choking before he managed to calm himself enough to speak again.

"Boy, you put a dozen men on their backs today without breaking a sweat! Why in the hell would someone like you want to serve alongside... son of a whore, it's absurd!"

Lancelot frowned in confusion. "My lord?"

"Let me put it this way. Would you send a fine war steed out to plow the fields like a common work horse? No, of course you wouldn't."


"There are plenty of men willing to join my guard for a few silvers and a straw pallet in the barracks. As long as they can swing a sword, they serve well enough. But I'd be a fool to waste your talents that way."

"You honor me, my lord, but I don't understand how else I can repay you for..."

"You really don't know, do you?" Lord Elbert said, giving him a strange look. "I thought your humility was just an act, but it's not, is it? Bloody hell, your skills must have required years of hard training. You're telling me you did all that just to serve in some household guard where you'd never earn more than a pittance?"

For some reason, Lancelot didn't feel comfortable mentioning Camelot or his former dreams of knighthood. Instead, he just nodded. "I've never cared much for personal gain, my lord."

"I suppose it's a comfort to think that way when you see no opportunity to improve your fortunes. Well, that's all about to change. Let me tell you what it is I want from you, and what I'm offering in return."

He paused to take a sip of ale. "I am a rich man... a very rich man. But I wasn't born to my fortune. I gained it through patience and cunning and in taking advantage of opportunities wherever I saw them. My instincts have rarely steered me wrong."

Lancelot nodded politely, slightly bewildered at the direction of the conversation.

"My biggest rival is is a man named Ulric. Lord Ulric to you, of course. For six months now, Ulric has claimed to have the greatest fighter in the kingdom in his service. Boasts to all who will listen that this champion of his is undefeatable. Naturally, I've taken it upon myself to prove otherwise. "

"My lord, I..."

Lord Elbert waved an impatient hand. "I've put forth five different champions for this challenge. Every last one of them has failed. I don't like failure... downright despise it when I lose two thousand gold coins every time it happens. Do you have any idea how much money that is, Lancelot?"

He swiftly calculated the sum in his head. Ten thousand gold. Suddenly, he remembered the small bag of coins he'd taken off the bandit. Just twenty gold pieces, and that had kept him fed and sheltered for more than a month. Five hundred times that much? It was beyond his comprehension.

"Yes, well, here's the truth of it. Ulric has grown so arrogant that he tells me he'll give me one last chance to recover both my pride and my fortune. If my next champion defeats his, he gives me his word that he'll restore the money I've lost. Not only that, he'll double it."

Lancelot's eyes widened in disbelief.

"I want you to be that champion. You see now, don't you? My small investment is nothing compared to what I stand to gain. Or what you stand to gain, for that matter. I'll pay you and pay you well if you'll do me this service."

"My lord... fight for money? To the death?" Just saying the words left a bad taste in his mouth.

"Of course! Why not? Someone with your skill could easily become a rich man. Perhaps you didn't know any of this before, which makes your low ambitions understandable. But now that I've offered you the possibility, why would you hesitate?"

I'd hesitate because it's a vile, dishonorable thing to do, he thought to himself in disgust. Defense and protection were the only acceptable reasons for killing another man. He'd based his entire life around that belief, honing his skills to be used for the protection of the innocent... a noble purpose.

The thought of using his sword for his own profit made him feel sick.

"Forgive me, my lord, but I must decline."

Lord Elbert looked at him in shock for a moment, then quickly recovered. "Maybe I didn't make myself clear about your payment. I'm willing to offer you two hundred gold. Two hundred gold for one fight. Only a fool would pass up such an offer."

He hesitated. Dishonorable or not, that much gold would mean months where he wouldn't have to worry about going hungry or sleeping out in the cold. He could replace his weapon and armor, purchase a good horse, then devote all his energies to finding a suitable position for himself.

"Two hundred and fifty gold!"

Why was fighting for money such an appalling idea? It wasn't as if he'd be attacking an innocent person. He'd be facing an equally armed fighter of considerable skill who'd fully understand the risk he was taking. Was that really so terrible?

You know it is, a tiny voice inside of him whispered. This goes against everything you've ever stood for.

"Three hundred," Lord Elbert said in a persuasive voice. "But that's as high as I go."

I only have to do it once, he told himself firmly. One dishonorable fight, in exchange for the means to seek out a better life for himself. He couldn't do that when he had no money and it was all he could do just to survive. This might be the only opportunity he'd have to improve his circumstances. Even if he didn't like it, he couldn't just turn it down.

With that thought, he let out a heavy sigh. "I accept, my lord."

Unable to sleep, Lancelot paced restlessly across the chamber. His conscience had begun to plague him with doubts, though they were quickly silenced by the sheer inevitability of it all. Did it really matter how he felt about the fight? He'd agreed to it now – it wasn't like he could go back on his word.

I'll just have to get through it, he told himself firmly. In a few days, it will be behind me, and I can leave this place.

Another thought occurred to him then... but this wasn't one he could dismiss so easily. What if he lost the fight? What if he was killed?

It hadn't even crossed his mind while he'd been in Lord Elbert's company, but suddenly, it was the only thing he could think about. This man will be a champion who has defeated many before me. What if he's beyond my skill?

He wasn't afraid of death, but memories of Camelot flashed through his mind, making his heart ache with regret. Deep down, somewhere beneath all his doubts and worries, he'd never stopped believing he would return someday... that it was only a matter of time before he'd be with Gwen and Merlin again.

I haven't even written to them, he thought with a stab of guilt. Not once. If I'm killed, they'll never know what happened or how much they meant to me. It'll always seem as if I left them behind and never looked back.

It had been impossible to send word during the months he'd spent wandering alone in the wilderness. He might have written while staying at the inn in Oakview, but he'd spent most of his time there trying to recover his strength after going without food or proper shelter for so long.

But now? He had to get a message to them. This might be his only chance.

Finding materials to write with turned out to be surprisingly easy, as one quick search of the room yielded both quill and parchment. Finding the words was far more difficult; he struggled for hours to write goodbye letters that wouldn't sound like he was actually saying goodbye.

But somehow, both messages had been signed and sealed by the time the first rays of sunlight began to pour through the window.

He fell into an exhausted sleep right there at the table, only to be woken an hour later when Millie brought his breakfast. Her quiet presence might not have disturbed him at all if she hadn't stumbled, dropping the empty platter she'd been carrying with a loud clatter.

"Oh," she cried out as he jumped up in alarm. "I'm so sorry! Please..."

She was looking at him in stark terror again, an expression Lancelot was beginning to despise. He took a couple steps closer and she cringed, holding up both hands to ward him off.

"N-no, please, it was an accident!"

"I know, Millie. I just don't understand why you're so afraid of me," he said with a tired sigh. "I wasn't threatening you. I only wanted to make sure you were all right."

Hesitantly, she dropped her hands.

"Have I done something to make you feel ill at ease in my presence? If I have, tell me and I'll make amends."

"No! I'm sorry... please don't think it's anything you've done. It's just the way I am sometimes, that's all."

He nodded, still concerned but unwilling to press her further when she already seemed so uncomfortable.

"I can accept that," he said with a reassuring smile. "As long as you promise to tell me if it ever does have anything to do with me. I'd like to be given the opportunity to apologize for whatever behavior you might find offensive."

Tentatively, she smiled back at him. "I... all right."

She left him alone to eat after that, moving quietly around the chamber as she straightened his bed linens and gathered discarded clothing. As she started to leave, however, he suddenly remembered the letters.

"Millie, wait! I wanted to ask you a favor."

When she turned around, he was glad to see that the look in her eyes was only quizzical, showing no trace of her earlier fear.

"I have a couple messages I'd like to send. Would you mind taking care of it for me?"

Suddenly, she looked wary. "I'm not sure..."

Lancelot frowned. "I understand if it's too much trouble. I'm sorry, forget I asked. I can speak to Lord Elbert about it later."

"No! I'll do it. The master hates to be bothered with small matters. Give them to me and let's speak nothing more of it."

"Thank you," he said gratefully, handing her the letters and watching as she hid them deep in the pocket of her apron. "I wouldn't presume to ask, but they're very important to me."

"I understand," she told him with a small smile as she exited the chamber. "I'll see that it's taken care of."

Chapter Text

Chapter 30: A New Purpose

Gwen knew nothing but pain and isolation during the terrible months that followed her father's death. Somehow she managed to keep her composure on the outside, burying her grief as she threw herself into her duties with all the strength she had.

It was a trait she'd inherited from Tom, a tendency to cope with sorrow through physical activity. Her father had barely left his forge for weeks after her brother had snuck away from Camelot in the middle of night. Never had he produced finer weapons or more beautiful sets of armor than he had during that time.

It was similar for Gwen. She kept Morgana's chambers spotless and her clothing immaculate, mending her dresses so swiftly that she never had to wait even a day before she could wear them again. Gwen worked so diligently, in fact, that she often ran out of chores long before the day was through.

In the past, she might have stayed with Morgana for hours after her work was done, sharing a long, pleasant conversation or joining her on a leisurely trip to the lower town to browse the latest wares. She'd always looked forward to the time they spent together, just as she knew Morgana did.

These days, however, she withdrew with a hasty farewell as soon as her tasks were completed, trying not to notice the hurt expression on Morgana's face as she fled her company without explanation. She couldn't help herself; the need to escape was so urgent it was as if the palace were on fire.

She hated herself for the way she was behaving, but she was terrified that if she shared her grief or even allowed anyone to talk to her on a personal level, all the pain she'd fought so desperately to hide would be laid open like a gaping wound that she wouldn't be able to close again.

As long as she didn't have to acknowledge her feelings, she could keep them buried deep inside where she didn't have to deal with them at all. That was the best way she knew of to focus on her duties and make it through the day without breaking down.

Unfortunately, nights were not so easy.

Sometimes she was lucky, too exhausted from the day's hard work to do anything other than curl up in bed and fall asleep as soon as she arrived home.

Most nights, however, she lay awake weeping until dawn in her empty house, wondering how it was possible to feel so lost and utterly alone without losing her mind.

The hardest part to bear was the silence. Always in the past, she'd been lulled to sleep by the muffled sound of a blacksmith's hammer pounding out weapons at the nearby forge. A gentle clanging of iron on steel had been her lullaby for as long as she could remember.

Now, she heard nothing.

It was some months later that her sorrow abruptly faded, replaced by helpless anger. As she wandered around the house late one night, too restless for sleep, she came to the unpleasant realization that every man she'd ever loved had deserted her. They'd all left her behind... and for what?

Her father, Elyan, Lancelot... each had disappeared from her life due to choices they'd made without her knowledge or consent. Worse, those had been decisions they'd come to not only for themselves, but on her behalf as well.

Well, perhaps not Elyan. He'd never pretended to be anything other than an irresponsible young man who thought only of himself. There was some small comfort in knowing that at least his absence in her life didn't have anything to do with a decision he'd made "for her own good."

Nonetheless, she was deeply hurt that her brother still hadn't responded to the devastating news about their father. Didn't he want to be at her side during such a difficult time? Couldn't he put aside his selfishness long enough to at least send a word of comfort if he couldn't come himself?

As for Tom, she couldn't hold him responsible for his own death. No, that tragedy was on Uther's shoulders, the heartless tyrant. But she could certainly question the poor judgment that had led to his terrible execution in the first place.

Why had he gotten himself involved in shady business dealings without even talking to her about what he was doing? Why had he decided for himself that she even needed fine things, or that she required a better life? He'd put himself at risk over something she'd never even asked for and hadn't wanted in the first place!

And Lancelot… he'd also seemed to believe he knew what was best for her, leaving behind a letter that insisted she deserved something better than what he could give.

I'd never presume to ask for your heart unless I had so much more to offer than what I am in this moment.

Gwen had read those words over and over as written by his own hand. She'd heard them echo in her mind a hundred times afterwards, having memorized every last line of his letter. In the past, the things he'd said had always given her a great deal of comfort.

This was the first time they'd ever made her furious.

Are all men like this? she wondered angrily as she paced around the room. Do they just decide for themselves what's best for a woman without even caring how she might feel about it?

And then she sank to the floor and burst into tears, realizing that if either Lancelot or her father had ever just asked her what she wanted, she never would've lost them.

Her father might have been working at his forge this very moment if he'd understood she only needed the most basic necessities to keep her happy. They'd had a safe home and plenty to eat, along with warm clothing and even a small amount of savings. Hadn't that been enough?

And Lancelot... if only he'd given her the chance, she could've told him that it didn't matter to her whether he was an honored knight or a humble pig farmer in some outlying village. She'd wanted him for himself, not some better life he might be able to offer her if his circumstances had improved.

Granted, she could've accepted the necessity of being separated from him if he'd needed to go out in the world and do those things for his own sake. She would've been happy to wait for him faithfully while he'd achieved his dreams. But all his talk of being unworthy... instructing her not to wait for him instead of trusting her to make that choice for herself? Telling her how much he cared, then choosing to withhold his feelings unless his conditions for the life he thought she deserved were satisfied?

Why had he felt it was his right to make those decisions for her? Did he think she was some simpleminded fool who didn't know what was best for herself?

She let out a heavy sigh, deciding it didn't matter how she felt about it anyway. It had been a year now and she'd heard nothing from him. If he still cared for her, it was impossible to believe he wouldn't have returned for a visit or at least found a way to send a message by now.

No, the past was gone. She needed to accept that she'd probably never see him again and put her feelings behind her. In addition to that, she had to come to terms with the death of her father, forgive the absence of her brother... even reconcile the rage she felt toward Uther somehow.

She'd wallowed in loneliness and grief for far too long. Instead of spending so much time thinking about all she'd lost, she needed to remember everything she still had. Her thoughts should be on people like Morgana and Merlin... friends she loved who'd never deserted her. It wasn't right to neglect them over the ones who'd walked away.

No, there was no use dwelling on a past that couldn't be changed. Yesterday was gone... but the future was full of possibility.

"My lady, can we talk?" she asked hesitantly after she finished her chores the following day. The question was met with a look of surprise, immediately followed by a relieved smile.

"Of course, Gwen! I've been hoping... well, nevermind. Let's sit and have some wine, shall we?"

After they'd settled themselves on the bed and goblets had been filled, she looked down and twisted her hands in her lap. "I-I wanted to apologize for my behavior these past few months. I know I've been shutting you out and I'm sorry. I just couldn't..."

Her words were interrupted as gentle fingers reached out to lift her chin. She lifted her eyes to meet a soft blue gaze that was filled with understanding, sympathy and... was that guilt?

"You don't have to apologize," Morgana said quietly. "Believe me, I know what it's like to lose a father and to hold Uther responsible for that loss. When I was brought here after Gorlois died, I didn't speak to anyone for weeks. It was Arthur who finally pulled me out of it."

"Arthur?" Gwen said in surprise. "How?"

"He put a sword in my hand and taunted me mercilessly. His jeers and insults accomplished what all the sympathetic words in the world could not do. They gave me an excuse to release my anger. Arthur was the only person who somehow understood exactly what I needed."

"Wow, it's difficult to imagine Arthur..."

"Being so sensitive? Yes, well, he has his good points when he's not busy acting like an arrogant prat. Just don't ever tell him I said something nice about him or I'll never hear the end of it."

"I wouldn't dream of it."

Morgana chuckled briefly, then her face grew serious. "I wanted to help you, Gwen, I just didn't know how. It seemed best to give you your space until you were ready to talk. I didn't want to intrude on your grief."

"I know, you don't have to explain. Honestly, there was nothing anyone could have done. I had to get through the worst of it on my own."

Morgana looked away and took a large sip of wine, not meeting her eyes when she spoke again. "To tell you the truth, I've spent a lot of time blaming myself. So much that I started to fear you might feel the same way."

"Morgana! How could you even think such a thing? You did everything you could to try and save my father. I'm the one who bandaged your poor wrists after you spent the night shackled to a dungeon wall!"

"I know, Gwen, but..."

"No one could have done more," she insisted firmly. "Please, I can't stand the thought of you feeling guilty over something that wasn't even your fault. Uther... well, you know there's no stopping him when magic is involved."

Something dark flitted behind Morgana's eyes. "His cruelty is likely to get him killed one of these days. That would stop him."

Gwen shifted uncomfortably. "Perhaps that's true, but I'd never wish it upon him no matter what he's done. Besides, it wouldn't change what has already happened."

Morgana's face softened. "You have a good heart, Gwen. Yes, maybe I made the right decision when I didn't... well, nevermind. It's a beautiful day outside. Shall we go down to the lower town for a while?"

"That would be lovely," she responded with a smile.

As the two women wandered through the streets of Camelot, Gwen felt as if she were truly seeing the city for the first time in months. It was especially beautiful with the sun just beginning to set beneath the horizon, bathing the stone walls of the palace in shades of crimson and gold.

She smiled at the people they passed – guards and servants, merchants and craftsmen, mothers and fathers and children. Most were faces she knew, many of whom called out greetings or smiled warmly as she and Morgana walked by.

How did I spend so many months feeling as if I were alone? she wondered to herself. All these people meant a great deal to her, whether she was well acquainted with them or not. Camelot... was there anywhere else in the world that was filled with so much love and kindness?

Suddenly, she remembered one terrible night during the worst of her grief. Believing she couldn't bear to look upon Uther's face after what he'd done, she'd decided to leave. She'd packed a small bag and saddled her gentle old mare, riding beyond the city gates in the middle of the night.

She'd gone perhaps a mile or two before the full moon had disappeared behind a mass of clouds, casting the world into darkness. Terrified, she'd been forced to stop, clinging to her horse's mane and shivering as the sounds of distant howling had echoed all around her.

The moment she'd been able to see again, she had turned the horse around and galloped straight back to the safety of the only home she'd ever known.

At the time, she'd cursed herself for a coward. It was only now that she realized she'd done the right thing. Perhaps it had been a sign, showing her that Camelot was the light in her world... and that beyond it lay only darkness and uncertainty.

She'd never been much of a believer in signs and omens. Always practical, she put her faith in the things she could see, touch, and feel. But where that night was concerned, at least, it was hard to deny the feeling that she'd been guided by invisible forces beyond her understanding.

While she still felt pangs of anger and bitterness whenever she saw Uther these days, she was gradually finding a new way to cope with those feelings. The more she despised the king whenever she thought of her father's death or witnessed him executing some unjust policy, the more she began to invest her faith in Arthur.

Without even realizing it at first, she began to watch him more closely, becoming increasingly hopeful for a brighter time that would be within his power to bring about someday. Whenever he showed even a hint of kindness or wisdom, her heart would swell with possibility.

All the good intentions she felt for the people she loved expanded, enveloping everyone who crossed her path as she hoped for a better future for them all. She yearned for a kingdom where innocent people like her father could live without fear... a world where even the most humble citizen would be treated with fairness and mercy, not cruelty and injustice.

And as time passed and her heart began to heal, she turned her eyes to the future, slowly rebuilding her destroyed hopes and laying them all in Arthur's hands.

Chapter Text

Chapter 31: Dishonorable Intentions

cage? Lancelot hesitated, staring at the iron bars in front of him in dismay.

"Hope you're not losing your nerve, boy!" Lord Elbert called in a mocking voice. "Go on, get in there!"

A cage meant to contain him and his opponent as if they were feral dogs or baited bears... creatures so mindlessly vicious that they had to be kept safely removed from the men they would entertain. Humiliated at the thought, he couldn't quite bring himself to step inside.

The two lords sat at a high trestle table, feasting on a haunch of roasted boar as they talked and laughed, seeming more like close friends than longtime rivals. All around them, a ragtag collection of rough looking men dressed in ragged skins and filthy leathers shouted and jeered, impatient for the fight to begin.

"Elbert, my friend!" Lord Ulric exclaimed with a snort of laughter. "What sort of champion is this? You expect me to believe this boy can put up a decent fight? Seems more likely to piss himself, if you ask me. Look at him cowering!"

"Aye!" called an ugly blond haired man with a scraggly beard and a missing front tooth. "I'll put twenty gold on the other man... and I haven't even seen him yet!"

The room erupted into laughter as other voices joined in, yelling out insults that became increasingly merciless as Lancelot flushed red with anger and humiliation.

"Look at him puff up!" the blond man snickered, moving closer to poke him roughly in the stomach. "Guess even a coward like him has..."

Without warning, he was lying flat on the ground, knocked unconscious by a lightning quick blow to the jaw. Lancelot gave his prone body a dismissive look, then stepped over it and entered the cage. Lord Elbert roared in approval.

"See?" he commented smugly to Lord Ulric. "The mistake you make is assuming the bigger man is always the better one. Lancelot here is about to show you otherwise. Come, bring on this great champion of yours!"

"RALF!" Lord Ulric bellowed.

Lancelot unsheathed his sword and waited, watching dispassionately as a hulking man pushed his way through the crowd and ducked to enter the cage.

Ralf was big, at least a head taller than Lancelot himself, with a barrel chest and thick arms that were heavily corded with dense muscle. His black hair hung in limp, greasy strings in front of his face... a face that was disfigured with dozens of battle scars. Thin lip curled in a sneer, he stared at Lancelot with cold, colorless eyes.

If I'm meant to die at this man's hands, then I will die, Lancelot told himself as he faced his opponent. If I manage to live, I'll take my gold and make a better life for myself. Either way, I only have to do this once.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he gripped the hilt of his sword more tightly and waited.

"Begin!" Lord Elbert shouted in a commanding voice.

The two men began to circle one another, each taking measure of his opponent as he searched for an advantage. Lancelot ignored the eager faces pressing up against the bars of the cage as they called out vicious taunts meant to goad one man or the other into action.

"Blood, Ralf!" a voice cried out in frustration. "Come on, we want to see blood!"

Ralf responded by rushing forward with his sword raised above his head, bringing it down with a whooshing sound as Lancelot stepped quickly aside to avoid the blow. He swung his own sword around in a graceful arc, drawing first blood as the point of his weapon drew a long, narrow scratch along the other man's side.

Growling, Ralf came at him a second time and Lancelot feinted, pretending to aim a blow even as he swerved his body backward to avoid impact. Propelled forward by the momentum of his attack, Ralf crashed against the bars of the cage and staggered before regaining his balance.

Like most unusually large men, Ralf was overconfident and focused almost entirely on offensive strategy. Knowing there were few who could match him for sheer strength, he didn't try to conserve his energy so he might last through a long fight. After all, he knew he only had to score one direct hit and his opponent would be dead on the ground at his feet.

Unfortunately for him, finding an opening to land that blow while fighting a man like Lancelot was proving to be a very difficult matter.

Lancelot was moderately strong for his size, but his real talent lay in his quickness and clever mind. Recognizing this advantage, he easily avoided one assault after another, ducking aside or dancing out of the way as Ralf roared in fury. He concentrated on defense, patiently allowing the larger man to tire himself with countless slashes and slices through empty air.

"What are you waiting for, you dumb shit?" Lord Ulric shouted as Ralf staggered wearily around the cage in pursuit of Lancelot. "Finish the little bastard!"

Both men panted heavily from exertion, dripping with sweat and blood from countless cuts and scratches. Lancelot had more stamina than his opponent, but he could feel himself beginning to tire. He knew it was time to end it, while he still had enough energy to rely upon his own quickness.

When Ralf rushed at him again, he brought his sword up under the man's overhanded swing, burying it deep in his chest. Withdrawing the blade as swiftly as he'd driven it in, he watched with a feeling of weary relief as Ralf stared at him in shock, then fell to his knees, pitched forward and lay still.

The room filled with the thunder of enthusiastic applause as he wiped the blood from his sword and exited the cage. Men who'd insulted him just a short time before now cheered wildly, shouting out approval and clapping him on the back as they complimented his incredible skill. He shrugged them off, ignoring their praise as he came to stand before Lord Elbert.

"My lord," he said with a small bow.

Lord Elbert was beaming with satisfaction. "Well done, Lancelot! Well done indeed! Here, sit down and have a mug of ale. You've earned it, my boy!"

Lancelot had no interest in celebration. He only wanted to receive his payment so he might retire to his chamber for a hot bath and a good night's rest. It had been a hard fight, the indignity of the experience draining him emotionally just as it had exhausted him physically. Unfortunately, it seemed the sleep he so desperately needed would have to wait.

"Come on, take a seat!" Lord Ulric agreed. "I'm not such a sore loser that I can't enjoy my friend's triumph, especially since it happens so seldom. Let's drink and make the most of it!"

Not wanting to cause offense, he reluctantly took a seat at the table and accepted a cup of ale. He drank thirstily as the two lords talked, trying to ignore his annoyance over the way Lord Elbert gloated, as if he'd personally driven the blade through Ralf's chest and had won the fight based on his own merits.

"There were none who could match your Ralf for strength, it's true," Lord Elbert remarked with a smug expression. "But in the end, it all comes down to swift reflexes and a keen mind. Haven't I been telling you that for years, Ulric? Now I've proven my point."

Lord Ulric snorted derisively. "If it's really that simple, why have you lost so much gold to me? Why have I watched your champions fall again and again when pitted against mine?"

"Just hadn't found the right man yet. Men like your Ralf, big, stupid, and too strong for their own good, are as plentiful as trees in the forest. Fighters like Lancelot here are much more difficult to find. Now that I have him, I challenge you to find one who can best him for swiftness and strategy."

"Care to make a wager on that?"

Lancelot shifted uncomfortably in his chair, dismayed at the realization that both men seemed to expect him to remain here and fight again for their entertainment. No... as soon as he received his payment and had an opportunity to rest, he had every intention of leaving this place forever.

There seemed to be no tactful way to say this, however, so he remained quiet and endured the rest of the conversation. He began to feel sleepy after several cups of ale, nodding off several times right there at the table before Lord Elbert finally took pity on him and sent him off to his chamber.

"Yes, go and get yourself some rest, Lancelot. You need to keep up your strength!"

He stood and cleared his throat awkwardly. "My lord, forgive me, but... my payment?"

"Oh, yes, of course! How forgetful of me. I don't have it on me at the moment, but I'll bring it by your chamber in the morning. Put it from your mind for tonight and get some sleep. It'll be taken care of tomorrow, you have my word on that."

Lancelot had no other choice but to nod in agreement. "Thank you, my lord. If you'll excuse me..."

He rose and exited the room, so weary that he practically stumbled up the stairs and through the corridors. Stripping off his scabbard, mail, and padding as he entered the chamber, he fell across the large bed and drifted off into an exhausted sleep.

He awoke with a start a few hours later, sitting up and blinking in confusion as his eyes searched the blackness. All was silent for a few heartbeats and then there it was again – a soft, scuffling sound. He instinctively reached for his sword, cursing inwardly as he remembered he had dropped it beside the chamber door.

"Who's there?" he said in a cautious whisper. "What do you want?"

A tiny flame suddenly flared in the darkness as a candle was ignited, illuminating the face of his mysterious visitor. "Don't be afraid," she murmured softly. "It's only me."

"Millie? What...? It's the middle of the night. Why are you here?"

"I-I was supposed to come to you before you retired, but I accidentally fell asleep," she replied as she stared down at the floor. "I was ordered to service you tonight. Please, you can do what you will with me now, just don't tell the master that I didn't come earlier. The consequences would be severe."

Lancelot frowned in confusion. "I don't understand. You bring my meals and tend to my needs... hot baths, clean chambers, fresh clothing. I've wanted for nothing these past few weeks thanks to the services you provide. What could I possibly need at this hour?"

Millie raised her eyes and looked at him in bewilderment. "I-I've never had to answer that question before. Every other man just assumes... well, it's no matter. If I must explain, it's my duty to service the champions when they defeat a challenger. The master insists upon it."

A horrible realization began to dawn on Lancelot, even as he tried to push the thought away. "You can't possibly mean...?"

"My orders are to pass the night in your bed."

He sucked in a sharp breath as his suspicions were confirmed. "No, Millie. No. It doesn't matter what your orders are. I cannot... I will not..."

She looked at him in surprise and dismay, clearly not expecting a refusal. Her cheeks colored in embarrassment as she lowered her head. "If you don't like my appearance, I can always blow the candle out. It won't matter in the darkness and I-I know how to please a man very well. Really, I do."

"You think that's why... good lord, has no one ever declined such an offer simply because he didn't wish to take advantage of you? Because he might be appalled at the idea of you being forced to..." he trailed off and shook his head.

"No. Men want what they want. They know I'm here to take care of their needs, so they don't question it further."

"But what about what you want?" he said angrily. "You're telling me Lord Elbert just makes you do this and no one cares whether you're willing or not? They just use you for their own pleasure and that's it?"

"If you're worried that I might resist you or seem unwilling..." she started hesitantly, seating herself on the bed beside him and placing a tentative hand in his lap.

He pushed her hand away, cursing in frustration. "No! That isn't even..." he stopped and sputtered before he continued. "Believe it or not, there are men who'd never even consider taking you to their bed unless you came to them by your own choice. Not pretending to be willing because of... consequences? What consequences? What could be worse than being used this way?"

"There are worse things," she whispered, her voice trembling. "Believe me, there are worse things."

Speechless, he stared at her with a mixture of pity, horror, and fury. "Tell me," he said, trying to sound gentle as he reached out to lay what was meant to be a comforting hand on her back. She winced and jerked away as if his touch had burned her.

"No, I-I cannot," she said with terror in her eyes. "I've said far too much already. I should've known better. I never speak a word to anyone who passes through here. It's safer that way. But you... I could see you were different. You were kind and and didn't mistreat me, and how do I repay you? I endanger us both with my foolishness."

"I don't understand. What do you expect me to do with what you've told me? How have you endangered me? If anything, you seem to be in need of help. But I can't begin to figure out what I can do to assist you if you won't even tell me..."

"No!" she said harshly as she rose to her feet. "Please, say nothing more. Even if I was willing to accept your help, which I'm not, there's nothing you could do. Nothing. There's no changing it. If you really mean what you say, the best you can do is keep everything I've said to yourself. Can you do that?"

"Yes, of course," he said slowly. "But..."

"Please, I have to go. I'm sorry for... well, I'm sorry."

"Wait!" he called out, but it was too late as she rushed out of the room, slamming the chamber door behind her with a resounding thud.

Chapter Text

Chapter 32: Chained and Bound

Lancelot paced restlessly in the darkness, unable to sleep following his disturbing encounter with Millie. Dwelling on every word of their conversation, he was still struggling to come to terms with the shocking revelation that she'd been forced to go to bed with countless men upon Lord Elbert's orders.

Even worse, if she'd been able to tell him something so dreadful with relative ease, what of all the things she couldn't bring herself to say? A dozen horrors crossed his mind, even as he berated himself for his own ignorance.

Why hadn't he seen it before? The fear in her eyes should've made it obvious she'd been terribly mistreated, whether she'd said anything or not. And it wasn't just her either – the old healer, the serving boy? Every one of them had been terrified of the man they served!

He felt ashamed as he thought of all the little things he'd overlooked or excused, trying to see the best in the man. Why? Because he'd been at his mercy, too? Because he'd owed him a debt? That was no excuse... not when he might've been able to help the others.

But what could he do? He might be able to steal Millie away when he left, but would she even go with him? What if he asked and she refused? He couldn't bear the thought of staying in this place any longer, but he couldn't just leave her at the mercy of someone like Lord Elbert either. He wouldn't be able to live with himself.

Suddenly, another thought occurred to him... an idea that was distasteful at first, but soon appeared to be the perfect solution to his dilemma.

I could buy her, he mused to himself. Yes, why couldn't he just offer the gold he'd earned in exchange for ownership? Even if three hundred wouldn't be enough, surely he'd be allowed to make up the rest in the cage? He'd feel no shame in taking on another fight if it was to secure an innocent girl's freedom.

If Lord Elbert agreed, Millie would be bought and paid for with no choice but to leave with him. She might not like it at first, but when she realized he only meant to escort her to a safe place, all would be well. She seemed like a sweet girl... surely she must have friends or family somewhere who would welcome her with open arms.

Satisfied with that solution, he didn't stop to ask himself why a girl who'd had anywhere else in the world to go would be living in such miserable circumstances in the first place.

"Ah, there's my champion!" Lord Elbert said cheerfully as he barged into the chamber without knocking a few hours later. "I trust you slept well? Hope that little wench didn't wear you out too much!"

Lancelot sighed and closed his eyes. He'd been trying to put Millie from his mind, hoping he'd be able to resist the urge to break Lord Elbert's jaw the moment he saw him. The man certainly wasn't helping with that.

"Yes, my lord," he said in a stilted voice. "My night was most... enjoyable."

Lord Elbert grinned as he crossed the room and seated himself at a small table near the window. "Indeed! Nothing like a woman in your bed after a good fight, eh? Come and sit with me! Let's talk."

"My lord, I wanted to ask you about..." he started as he sat down, the mention of Millie in such a distasteful manner making him even more anxious to secure her freedom.

"Your gold. Yes, yes, I've brought it with me as promised. At least grant me the courtesy of allowing me to speak before you demand your payment? You'll have it when I'm ready."

"Forgive me, my lord," he mumbled reluctantly, already suspecting what was to come and not looking forward to the conversation.

Lord Elbert pulled a flask from the pocket of his tunic, taking a long drink before he began to talk.

"I must say, Lancelot, you're an even better fighter than I imagined. Your swiftness, your strategy... well, I don't have to tell you how good you are. Let me just say that I intend on bringing you into my service permanently. Gold and glory, boy. What do you say?"

"My lord, I appreciate the offer, but this isn't a life I'd choose for myself. I mean no offense to you, but I intend to be on my way as soon as I have the gold to secure my journey."

Pulling a tiny leather purse from his pocket, the other man threw it on the table with a bark of laughter. "There's your payment. Count it for yourself and then tell me how far you expect it to take you."

He frowned in confusion as he pulled the drawstring, watching as a small handful of gold pieces spilled out across the table. "Nine gold? What is this, my lord? I don't understand. You said..."

"I said three hundred gold. Yes, I most certainly did. Well, there was the one hundred and fifty gold I paid as your purchase price. Ten gold for the services of my healer. Twenty gold per week for your food and lodging for the past month. Fifty gold for your sword, clothing and armor. Oh yes, and one gold coin to pay for that little whore you bedded last night."

"I thought..." Lancelot stared at him in disbelief, clenching his hands under the table as he fought to control his rising fury. "You led me to believe..."

Lord Elbert snorted derisively. "I didn't lead you to believe anything. I just mentioned some impressive sum of gold and you agreed to fight. Is it my fault that you lacked the wisdom to ask questions beforehand?"

When he only shook his head in helpless denial, the other man continued.

"Surely you agree that I've provided well for your needs. Must I remind you of everything I've done on your behalf? You owed me a debt and now that debt is paid off. You'll earn more next time. Gold you'll get to keep for yourself… aside from fees for room and board, of course."

He was seething with anger as he stared into the cold black eyes that were gazing back at him in smug satisfaction. He'd been intentionally misled and they both knew it... just as they knew Lancelot's debt was inflated to ridiculous proportions. But what could he do about it now?

I could put my sword through his throat, he thought viciously. I could strike him dead right where he sits and not waste a moment of regret on the act. A man like this deserves to die.

Lord Elbert seemed to sense the direction of his thoughts as he shouted out a word of command; the door burst open and four heavily armed guards entered the chamber. One leaned down to pick up Lancelot's sword, giving him a knowing smirk as he tucked it into his belt.

"Entertaining thoughts of killing me?" Lord Elbert said with a chuckle of amusement. "Perhaps this would be an ideal time to point out that I can have a dozen men on you with a snap of my fingers. Got it? Now settle your temper so we can come to a more civil agreement."

"I will not reach any agreement with you. Not if it means having to remain under obligation to you for a minute longer than I've already wasted here. I'll take my gold, as little as it is, and be on my way."

It was only when the other man spoke again that Lancelot learned what it truly meant to be powerless.

"Oh dear," Lord Elbert said with an exaggerated sigh. "Here I was hoping this could be a friendly arrangement. Unfortunately, I'm now obligated to admit that I plan on keeping you in my service for as long as I please, with or without your consent. And if you're still intent on defying me, you'll be facing consequences you haven't even begun to imagine."

"What consequences? I'm not afraid of you," Lancelot spat back as he rose out of his chair. "Do you intend to kill me if I don't do as you command? Go ahead! I'd rather die than serve a man like you!"

"Oh, if it was only that simple. Guards! Restrain him while I tell him the rest. I'm afraid this information might be a bit of a blow, and I don't want him doing anything he might come to regret."

Lancelot struggled in vain as the guards shoved him roughly back into his seat, swearing viciously as they clapped iron manacles around his wrists and ankles.

"Are we good now, or shall I have you gagged as well? I never imagined someone with your fine manners would have such a filthy mouth on him! Very impressive... though I'd rather hear a few of your prettier words at the moment."

Lord Elbert grinned as he fished in the pocket of his tunic again, withdrawing his flask along with several sheets of folded parchment. Feeling a sickening lurch in his stomach, Lancelot recognized his own handwriting on the outside of the letters.

The first one was opened with a flourish. "Dear Merlin," the other man read in a mocking voice. "I am sincerely sorry I haven't written to you sooner. After all you've done for me, I should have made more of an effort to... blah, blah, blah. Well, you know how it goes. This Merlin means a great deal to you, doesn't he?"

Shaking his head in denial, Lancelot struggled against his restraints, hardly able to bear the sound of his friend's name coming from such a despicable mouth.

"No?" Lord Elbert looked at him in mock surprise, then glanced at the letter again and poked at it with a fat finger. "But it says right here that you wish for nothing more than to see him again someday. You're telling me that's a lie?"

"Stop it," he growled from between clenched teeth. "What is the point of this? Those letters have nothing to do with..."

"Quiet! Where are your courtesies, Lancelot? Don't you know it's rude to interrupt someone who's trying to read? Now where was I... oh yes. Your dear friend Merlin. Well, no use dwelling on this one when the other letter is so much more intriguing. Let's get to it, shall we?"

"No! Leave it or I swear on my life, I'll…"

"Guards? How about a gag for our friend here? Afraid he's going to need it for this one." Lord Elbert's expression was positively gleeful as he watched Lancelot sputter against the dirty fabric. "Yes, that's perfect. Now let's continue..."

"My dearest Guinevere," he began to read, placing a hand over his heart. "I cannot begin to hope you'll forgive me for not sending word before now. Please know that I've spent every day we've been apart wishing there was a way to tell you how much you mean to me..." he trailed off, giving a loud sniffle and pretending to wipe a tear from his eye.

"... need to say what I should have said from the moment I first knew the truth of it."

He broke off to take a drink from his flask, then cleared his throat dramatically. One of the guards snickered in the background as Lancelot cringed, knowing what was coming next.

"I loved you from the moment I met you, Gwen. You must believe me when I tell you that will never change, no matter how long we might be apart or what the future may hold..."

Lord Elbert folded the parchment and pretended to use it to dab at his eyes. He'll die for this, Lancelot swore to himself, shaking with helpless fury. One way or another, he'll die for this… and I'll be the one to kill him.

"Such a shame. You tell me that death is preferable to remaining in my service. But what of your Merlin and this... Gwen? Is your pride worth the price of their lives? Untie that gag! I want to hear his response."

Lancelot spat out the filthy fabric and leaned forward, fixing the other man with a deadly glare. "They're far beyond your reach, so do not hope to frighten me with your empty threats."

Lord Elbert let out a merry laugh. "Yes, I know. Safe in Camelot. I have their locations right here, carefully written on the outside of these letters by your own hand. Quite considerate of you to make it so easy for me, by the way. I see that one can be found in the quarters of the Court Physician..."

"There's nothing you can do to him. He's under the protection of Prince Arthur himself! If you tried to harm him, the Knights of Camelot would come down on you like..."

"If you say so," the other man said, giving him a patronizing smile. "Well, how about the girl then? She doesn't appear to be living in a palace. No, this letter is addressed to a house that's located right around the corner from a blacksmith's forge. Doesn't sound like a well guarded fortress to me."

He's just trying to frighten me into submission. What can he do from here? We must be more than fifty leagues away from Camelot! And yet the mere suggestion of anyone trying to hurt Gwen was enough to drive terror into Lancelot's heart. Even if there were no truth behind the words, he couldn't dismiss them so easily.

"I see that I have your attention. Good, very good. As I told you before, I am a very rich man. It would be a simple matter for me to hire any number of skilled assassins and send them off to Camelot."

Lancelot turned pale, staring at him in growing horror as a chill skittered up his spine.

"There's a man named Myror who's rumored to be exceptional. I'm told he moves like a shadow through the night, that no one ever sees him when he strikes. They say he's taken over a hundred lives, but of course, who can know for sure? Imagine it, Lancelot. Just picture a man like that setting his sights on your Gwen... perhaps when she's walking home in the darkness, or asleep in her bed with a window left ajar?"

He paused and let out a malicious chuckle. "Why I bet if I paid a little extra, I could even choose the method by which it's done! What do you think? A dagger across the throat would end it far too quickly, wouldn't you agree? How about a slow poisoning then? Yes, imagine the poor girl dying by inches as my assassin whispers in her ear that you are the cause of her suffering!"

"Stop," Lancelot uttered in a strangled voice. "Please. I'll do whatever it is you ask of me… anything you want. Just please, speak no more of this."

Lord Elbert nodded with an expression of smug satisfaction. "I thought you might say that."

Chapter Text

Chapter 33: Small Comforts

"Leave him shackled to the chair," was the nonchalant command given to the guards. "He needs time to understand there are consequences for defying my wishes."

Bound and helpless, Lancelot tried to swallow his distress as the chamber door slammed with a resounding thud behind Lord Elbert and his men. He heard the muffled sound of heavy footsteps fading away and then all was silent.

Alone in the quiet chamber, he wondered how long he was meant to go without food or water. How many hours must he wait before he'd have access to a chamber pot again?

The thought brought on an intense need to relieve himself.

Daylight faded into darkness as he ignored the persistent ache of muscles that stiffened and cramped from lack of use. He pushed away the pain when his chafed wrists and ankles began to burn, rubbed raw beneath the cruel iron that held them fast.

Those pains were nothing. No other discomfort compared with the unbearable thirst that came upon him as the hours passed. He licked his parched lips until they cracked and bled, groaning softly to himself as he fought back the overwhelming urge to call out and beg for water.

I will not do it. I will not give him the satisfaction.

Closing his eyes, he desperately searched his mind for some pleasant distraction that might make his current misery a little more bearable. He sighed in relief when it came to him almost instantly, appearing in the form of a woman who gazed up at him with a gentle smile.


She stepped forward into his arms without hesitation, nestling her head against his chest with a murmur of contentment. Breathing in the sweet scent of her hair, he held her close, stroking her dark curls before sliding his hands down to caress her back.

"Oh, Gwen," he whispered, though he wasn't sure if he was speaking the words aloud or if they only echoed in his mind. "I'd do anything to protect you. There's nothing I wouldn't sacrifice to see you safe and happy..."

But then his words trailed away at the small, strangled sound that came from the back of her throat. She pulled out of his embrace, then raised her head to stare at him with eyes full of fear and accusation.

"Gwen, what is it?" he asked her in bewilderment. "What's wrong?"

Her face twisted in anguish; she fell heavily to her knees before he could catch her, clawing at her throat as she gasped for air. He cried out, his voice ragged and filled with terror, dropping to the floor and reaching for her with shaking hands.

As soon as he touched her, he felt her suffering like it was his own. His throat burned and tightened as he swallowed hard, setting his teeth against the agony as it drifted lower and began to gnaw viciously at the empty, aching void that had once been his stomach.

Good lord, he's poisoned her. No... no, please...

He came awake with a start, shivering violently as the cool night breeze from the open window chilled his sweat dampened skin. Instinctively, he made to raise a hand to wipe the wetness from his face, cursing aloud when the iron shackle bit cruelly into his raw flesh.

Not poison, he realized as the terrifying dream faded away. Only hunger and thirst. How much longer can I bear it before I go mad? Maybe he wants me to call out. Perhaps that would put an end to this?

And yet he couldn't do it… not while he still had the strength to resist.

His thoughts were interrupted by the soft sound of footsteps outside the chamber. Hope flared inside him as the door opened, admitting the blond serving boy who'd attended them at supper just a few nights before.

"H-have you come to release me?" he asked, unable to manage more than a raspy whisper.

"I'm sorry," the boy said quietly, gesturing at the chamber pot in his hand. "I wish I could, but my orders are only to..."

Lancelot's rush of disappointment was quickly overpowered as he realized how desperately he needed to relieve himself. "I understand. Well, free my hands so I can see to my needs, please. I cannot wait much longer."

The boy flushed crimson in embarrassment. "I don't have a key. I-I'm supposed to... the master told me to... he said I have to do it for you. He said to remind you that you can't even take a piss on your own if he chooses to forbid it. I'm sorry..."

"Let's just get on with it then," Lancelot said gruffly.

Setting his jaw, he stared at the ceiling while the boy unfastened his trousers and pulled him free, quite sure he'd never experienced anything so humiliating in his life. Attempting to maneuver around shackles that only allowed for a few inches of movement was an awkward process, but somehow, they managed to get it done.

"Thank you," he said in the aftermath, his injured pride somewhat mollified by the overwhelming feeling of relief. "Could you give me some water before you go? Please, it's been hours."

The boy hesitated, looking down at him with sympathy in his pale blue eyes. "I was ordered not to give you food or water, but..." he trailed off, muttering to himself as he crossed the room and retrieved a pitcher from the bedside table.

Lancelot drank deeply as soon as the cup was held to his lips, nearly moaning aloud in pleasure as the cool liquid slid down his parched throat. The boy allowed him to drain one cup and then another, shooting furtive looks at the chamber door every now and again as he waited for him to satisfy his thirst.

"Better?" he asked after a few minutes. "I can't do anything about food, but if you can just hold out until morning, they'll release you then. It won't be much longer now."

"Do you really think they'll free me?" Lancelot asked hopefully. "How do you know?"

"Because I've been through it myself," the boy responded bitterly. "Not once, but three times since I was brought here. Listen... take my advice and give him what he wants. Make him believe you're truly under his command. It's the only way to survive here."

When Lord Elbert and his men came to release Lancelot just after dawn, they found a captive who was humble and repentant. Satisfied by numerous apologies and promises of unquestioning obedience, Lord Elbert commanded his servants to bring a good breakfast and a hot bath, telling Lancelot almost kindly that he needed to rest up and recover his strength.

In the weeks that followed, it was as if the terrible confrontation and subsequent imprisonment had never happened. Lancelot was treated as an honored guest and even found himself invited to dine with his captor each evening.

Lord Elbert was not a difficult man to understand. All one had to do was flatter his ego, treat him like a king and be utterly humble in his presence and he was well satisfied. Despite his resentment for the man, it was a task Lancelot found almost mindlessly simple to perform.

It was the blond boy who came to clean Lancelot's chambers every morning and brought his meals each day. He soon introduced himself as Jack; unlike Millie before him, he seemed to have little fear of speaking out against his master.

"Expects everyone to treat him like royalty when he's not even a real lord," he grumbled to Lancelot one morning as he cleaned the windows. "The fat oaf! He's as common as you or me, just too rich for anyone to call him out on the lie."

There'd been no sign of Millie for more than two weeks when Lancelot finally inquired as to her whereabouts.

"The girl who was serving me before... what happened to her?"

"Millie?" Jack scowled. "She's been ill. Wasn't the beating that did it, it was letting those wounds get infected. Feared she might not make it at first, but she's more or less recovered now."

Lancelot stared at him in disbelief. "Beating? What... why would anyone beat her?"

"You didn't know? Thought you would've seen for yourself when the master sent her to you right after it happened. Gave her ten lashes with the whip for defying him."

The letters... Lancelot thought to himself in horror. Did I cause such a terrible thing to happen?

"H-how did she defy him?" he said out loud.

Jack shrugged carelessly, though there was anger in his pale eyes. "Refused to go to bed with Lord Ulric while he was here. That one isn't a real lord either, by the way. Anyway, Millie hates him. She's never said why, but I guess she figured punishment was better than letting him put his cock inside her."

"And she was beaten for that? What an..."

"Unfeeling piece of shit?" Jack helpfully supplied. "Yes, well, that's the master for you. Gives her away to any man he chooses without a second thought. Bad enough on its own, but far worse being as she's his own daughter."

Lancelot barely managed to control his fury when he joined Lord Elbert for supper that night. As the man feasted, drank, and chattered happily, he clenched his fists under the table until it hurt, somehow resisting the urge to reach across the table and choke the life out of him.

"Got another fight for you tomorrow night. Think you can take this one easily, Lancelot! Fifty gold. What do you say?"

"My lord, do you even have to ask?" he said, hoping the other man wouldn't notice that he spoke through clenched teeth. "You know I am yours to command."

Lord Elbert grinned at him. "Well said, my boy! Forty gold will go to your room and board, of course, but that's ten you can keep. Or nine, if you'll be wanting the wench again."

Suddenly, an idea started to form in his mind. "My lord, if I might ask... it's one gold per night for her? Is that only after a fight or...?"

He was cut off by a roar of laughter. "In the mood for a good fuck, are you? Nothing wrong with that! Yes, if you're willing to pay, you can have her any night you want. Mostly sits around useless anyway, unless I'm entertaining a guest or decide to give her to the guards for a bit of sport. You want her in your bed tonight? She's all yours!"

Lancelot took a deep breath, hoping what he was about to say wouldn't arouse suspicion. "If it's as you say, my lord, then I'd like to pay to have her every night."

"Are you joking?" Lord Elbert asked, peering at him skeptically. "Every night? She's a cheap whore. Using her on occasion is one thing, but..."

Swallowing hard, Lancelot forced himself to speak the words that were most likely to be convincing in his current situation.

"I don't like going even a day without a woman in my bed," he said after a moment, attempting a leer he was quite sure was closer to a grimace. "She does the job as well as any other. Besides, if I get tired of her face, I can just blow the candles out. They're all the same in the dark, are they not?"

Lord Elbert burst out laughing. "Seems you're right! Not many to choose from around these parts anyway, unless you're interested in those toothless old hags who work in the kitchens."

Lancelot searched his mind for the crudest thing he could come up with. "I hear they suck cock even better when they're toothless," he said in mock thoughtfulness. "Perhaps I should reconsider..."

Lord Elbert spit a mouthful of ale all over himself as he howled in amusement. "No need to sink that low, my boy! If you want the little whore and are willing to pay, who am I to stop you? It's all profit for me. I'll have her sent to your chamber tonight."

"Thank you, my lord," he said, letting out a sigh of relief.

It was well after midnight when Millie slipped quietly into the chamber, seeming much thinner than the last time he'd seen her. When she came closer to the bed, he could see the dark circles under her eyes, standing out in sharp relief against a face that was much too pale. His heart twisted in sympathy.

"I-I'm told that you've chosen to pay for me to come to your bed every night," she said hesitantly as she reached up and began to unbutton her dress. "I'm told I must fulfill your every desire."

Lancelot cleared his throat uncomfortably. "It's my desire for you to come over here and go to sleep. Leave your clothes on."

"But you paid..."

"I'm paying to keep you safe in whatever way I can."

Millie stared at him in bewilderment. "I don't understand."

"As long as you're here with me, you're not at anyone else's mercy," he explained patiently. "Only mine... and I actually have some. Now come, let's get some sleep. You look as tired as I feel and I'm expected to fight tomorrow."

It was a large bed, so spacious that he didn't even feel it when she slipped beneath the covers and settled herself into a comfortable position. Even so, it was a strange feeling to find himself lying next to a woman, listening to her soft breathing in the darkness.

Lancelot had never pictured sharing a bed with anyone other than Gwen, whom he always imagined would be nestled comfortably in his arms... not lying stiffly beside him as an awkward silence hung heavy in the air.

"If you decide you want to..." Millie said softly, interrupting his thoughts. "If you feel the need during the night, I won't refuse you. You've paid for it, after all."

"I know you wouldn't refuse," he responded shortly. "That's exactly why I wouldn't do it."

"You'd rather me put up a fight? I can do that if that's what you'd prefer. You wouldn't be the first man to..."

He sighed wearily. "That's not what I meant. Go to sleep, Millie."

A few minutes passed before his eyes finally grew heavy and drifted closed. He was nearly asleep when she took a deep breath and spoke again.


"Yes?" he mumbled drowsily.

"Thank you."

Chapter Text

Chapter 34: The Power of Need

Lancelot gingerly lowered himself into a seat at the table and reached for a cup of ale. Had this been his seventh time in the cage, or his eighth? He couldn't seem to remember anymore. It was all starting to blur together in his mind, a succession of nameless faces that had fallen beneath his sword in a seemingly endless fight for survival.

Week after week, he'd been left bruised and bloody in the aftermath, all for the price of a few gold coins.

"I wonder why he bothers to pay me at all," he'd remarked one evening after Lord Elbert had cheerfully delivered one of his pitifully small payments. "He knows I have to do as he commands either way. Why not keep it for himself?"

Millie had snorted in response. "As long as he pays you something, he can convince himself it's a fair exchange. He does that with all of us, you know. I'm given five silver for every night I sleep here in your chamber."

"Five silver?" he'd gaped at her in disbelief. "That's not even..."

"No different than you receiving five gold in payment for fights where he earns five hundred. How do you think he got so rich?"

Lancelot finished his cup and poured himself another, staring moodily at nothing as he contemplated his hatred for the man. Never in his life had he met anyone who inspired so much rage inside him, a resentment that ran so deep he'd begun to fantasize about allowing his opponents to finish him off, simply to deprive the bastard of the satisfaction of another victory.

It was a fantasy he could never bring himself to act upon, however. Somewhere beneath all his anger and hopelessness, there still lay a desperate need to survive.

As weeks had turned into months, his body had grown stronger, harder, and more powerful. The days where he wasn't required to face an opponent in the cage were spent down in the training yard, tirelessly honing his skills for the next fight.

It was degrading to fight for profit, as small as that profit might be. And yes, it was infuriating to know he didn't have a choice in the matter. But his deepest shame had come when he'd realized he was beginning to enjoy the fights. The killing was always unpleasant, of course, but proving his skill up until that point brought a deep feeling of satisfaction.

In the end, the cage was the only place where he didn't feel completely powerless these days.

"Take off your shirt."

Shaken from his reverie, Lancelot glanced up and saw Millie staring back at him with a determined expression on her face. In her hands was a small tray containing a roll of bandages and a vial of ointment.

"Thank you, but I don't need it. Just a couple of scratches. I'll be fine."

"Take off your shirt," she repeated impatiently.

He looked at her for a moment, then sighed in resignation and did as she commanded. She nodded in satisfaction and moved closer, causing him to wince and bite his lip as she began to gently clean a cut on his upper chest and another on his forearm.

"Just scratches?" she scolded him as she worked. "Injuries like this will fester if they're not treated. You know that as well as I do, even if you act like a bloody fool every time it happens."

Millie had often taken Lancelot by surprise as she'd gotten over her timidity and become more comfortable in his presence. Beneath the fear and uncertainty that had made her seem so shy and submissive, he was beginning to learn that her real personality was something else entirely.

The real Millie had a sharp tongue and wasn't afraid to use it. She was straightforward in everything she said and did, sometimes shocking him with her blunt honesty. He'd learned that quite unexpectedly on the day she'd cheerily informed him they were both cheap whores and might as well get used to that fact.

"Face it, Lancelot – you're paid to fuck men with your sword and I'm paid to do it with my twat. Someone always gets a good sticking when we come around, eh?"

"Whores?" He'd been horribly offended for both their sakes. "You didn't choose this life any more than I did. We've both been forced to..."

She'd cut him off with an impatient wave of her hand. "Yes, yes, I know. We had no other choice. Do you think it matters, that anyone else stops to consider our reasons? No, Lancelot. You're just a heartless mercenary fighter who kills for profit and I'm nothing but a dirty slut."

"You don't really believe that, do you?"

She'd smiled a little sadly. "No. But people are going to treat us that way no matter how we feel, so might as well make the best of it."

"How?" he'd asked her curiously.

"I'll let you know as soon as I figure that out for myself."

Lancelot stared blankly up at the ceiling, hoping that sleep would claim him. Restlessness and an overactive mind troubled him almost constantly these days, as he brooded over his current situation and struggled in vain to come up with an idea as to how he might escape it.

Millie slept quietly on the other side of the bed, just as she had every night for the past two months. Two? Or had it been more than that? It was impossible to remember anymore.

He was thankful she'd stopped offering herself to him after the first few nights. It would've been more and more difficult to deny her as the weeks had passed, especially since her constant presence in his chambers left him with limited opportunities to pleasure himself and relieve his tension.

One morning, he'd awoken to find himself pressed against her backside, growing painfully hard as she'd shifted her hips and moaned a little in her sleep. He'd very nearly lost his resolve in that moment, imagining how easy it would be to push up her nightgown and slip inside her.

She wouldn't refuse you, a voice inside him had whispered as he'd rubbed against her soft warmth, unable to stop himself. And maybe it wouldn't even be about feeling under obligation anymore. She seems to like you. Maybe she'd want to do it if you asked her. Would that be so wrong?

He'd groaned low in his throat as he'd moved, his hands shaking as he'd fought to resist the overwhelming urge to slide a hand up to touch her breasts.

Stop. You have to stop, he'd told himself desperately. Good lord, stop it! You can't do this. You know you can't. Not when you can't be sure she wouldn't be giving in only because she felt like she had no other choice. You're not so dishonorable as that.

Somehow, he'd forced himself from the bed and fled the chamber, choosing to spend the rest of the day dealing with his frustration by beating the hell out of any opponent who'd been foolish enough to face him in the training yard.

That evening and all the nights thereafter, he'd taken to spending extra time in the privy before bed and arranging a pile of pillows between them whenever they slept. She'd raised an eyebrow at him the first time he'd done it, but had made no comment otherwise.

With a heavy sigh, Lancelot brought himself back to the present, struggling to control the direction of his thoughts. No matter what he tried to do to prevent it, the events of that morning had changed everything. He could hardly be in the same room with her anymore without becoming painfully aroused.

Of course, his cravings had nothing to do with Millie herself. He didn't dream of how her lips would feel on his skin because they belonged to her. No, was only because they were pink and soft. And it was nothing more than the sensation he wanted to experience when he fantasized about being inside her.

His lust made him feel guilty for this reason more than any other. While it was true that he cared for Millie, that was only as a protector and possibly a friend. He might crave her body, but it was impossible to think he could bring himself to love her. Only one person would ever hold his heart, and that would never change.

Thinking about Gwen always made Lancelot feel even more conflicted. Now that he knew she'd never received his letter, he was sure she must've given up on him long before now. How would any woman feel in her position? He'd left her with no promises and no reassurance, followed by well over a year of silence.

She must hate me... if I even cross her mind anymore, he thought dismally. Was he ever such a fool to imagine he could just leave her behind, then return one day as if nothing had changed? Had he expected that she'd just be sitting there waiting for him?

He slid into some dark, hopeless place as he forced himself to accept that any future with her would be impossible now. Even if by some miracle, she didn't hate him or hadn't fallen in love with someone else, how would she feel when she saw what he'd become? Disgusted? Sad?

Suddenly, a pitiful sniffle came to his ears, as if echoing the direction of his thoughts. He rose up on one elbow, frowning in concern as he noticed the silvery tears that were trailing down Millie's pale cheeks.

"What is it?" he whispered anxiously. "What's wrong?"

"I-I'm sorry, I didn't know you were awake. Just a bad dream, that's all. Go back to sleep, Lancelot."

He shook his head as he sat up to light a candle on the bedside table. When he turned back to her, examining her face more closely in the light, her eyes were red rimmed and puffy. More than that, she was visibly trembling.

"It must have been a terrible dream. Do you want to tell me about it? It might put your mind at ease to..."

He watched in bewilderment as she began to cry again, searching his mind for other words of comfort he might offer. A much stronger instinct came upon him then; he shoved the barrier of pillows away, reaching out to pull her into his arms. He shifted to his side, stroking her hair as she wept against his chest.

"You were dead. I-I dreamed you went down to the cage to fight and all they brought back w-was your lifeless body, and… I'm sorry, I shouldn't be telling you this..."

"Shhh," he murmured soothingly. "It's all right."

"No, it's not! It's not all right, because it isn't just a dream! The cage kills every fighter who passes through here, and sooner or later, it's going to kill you, too!"

Suddenly, he began to understand. "You're upset because you don't want me to die? Try not to worry about that – no one is going to kill me that easily."

"I-I can't go back to how it was before. I can't! Maybe it's selfish to think like that, but..."

He didn't want to tell her that any safety he offered was nothing more than an illusion as long as they were at the mercy of Lord Elbert and his whims. "It's not selfish," he said instead, trying to sound as comforting as possible. "I'll do everything in my power to make sure that doesn't happen. I swear it."

Sighing in resignation, she rested her head against his chest. "C-can I just stay like this for a while? I feel safer this way."

"Of course you can," he whispered gently. "Now go back to sleep. Everything will be all right."

It was a lie and they both knew it, but it was enough for the time being. She let out a shuddering sigh and snuggled closer, her fingers absently trailing up and down his back at first, then growing still as her breathing became deep and even.

A sleepy moan and the slightest shift was all it took; he cursed inwardly as he felt himself grow hard. He made to pull away, only to be held fast as she whimpered in protest, throwing a leg over his and preventing his escape.

This is torture, he thought to himself as his hips began to move against her in a desperate rhythm he fought valiantly to control. I can't... I have to stop.

She came awake with a gasp of surprise, but before he could manage to stammer out an apology, she was kissing him. And any further protest his mind might have offered was silenced as she began to mimic his movements, moaning low in her throat as she increased the friction between them.

The next thing he knew, her clothing had been discarded and she was beneath him, her hand reaching down to unlace his trousers. He let out a ragged groan as she wrapped her fingers firmly around his length and guided him to her entrance.

Instinct took over as he pushed his hips forward, nearly climaxing before he was even all the way inside her as he felt the sweet, delicious heat pressing all around him. It was maddening – infinitely more blissful than he'd ever imagined it must be.

Several quick, jerky thrusts were all he could manage before he lost control, his body spasming with wave after wave of intense pleasure. He knew somewhere in the back of his mind that it had been a shameful performance, but it was hard to care as he collapsed on top of her, utterly spent.

When he finally recovered enough to raise his head, he looked down to see her staring back at him, appearing almost bored as she raised a quizzical eyebrow.

"I'm guessing that was your first time," she said, unable to suppress her giggles as he turned red and sputtered out an embarrassed apology.

Chapter Text

Chapter 35: The Escape

When Lancelot awoke the following morning, he was overwhelmed by a deep sense of shame. What have I done? he asked himself as he lay staring at the wall, unable to bring himself to look at the woman sleeping quietly beside him. She'd trusted him and he'd used her, proving himself to be no different than the men he was supposed to be protecting her from.

Unfortunately, what he'd done the previous night had only given him temporary relief. He groaned in frustration as he realized he was hard all over again, then groaned for another reason entirely as soft fingers trailed over his bare hip beneath the blanket.

This isn't right. Tell her she has to stop. Tell her...

But then rational thought fled his mind as she took his erection in her hand and began to stroke him in a slow, almost maddening rhythm. She bit his neck and he gasped, responding by flipping over and pinning her beneath him in one swift motion.

The second time he took her was even more mindless than the first. With his eyes squeezed tightly shut, he pounded into her furiously in a futile attempt to satisfy his cravings once and for all. Nothing registered in his mind beyond the intoxicating warmth that was wrapped around him and the increasingly desperate need to...

He let out a hoarse shout as the sweetness of release flooded through his body. Good lord, this is worth it, he thought vaguely as he collapsed and lay panting in the aftermath. 

But the sound of a softly cleared throat was all it took for reality to come rushing back. He opened his eyes to find Millie staring back at him with a look of sheer frustration on her face.

He opened and closed his mouth several times before he finally managed to speak. "I'm sorry. That was..."

"Awful?" she helpfully supplied.

"I'm sorry, did I hurt you?" he asked in sudden concern.

"No. Shook me up a bit, but at least I'm wide awake now."

He struggled for the right thing to say, even as he sat up and clumsily fumbled for his trousers. "Last night... this morning. That was wrong. I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me. I shouldn't have..."

Millie raised an eyebrow as she watched him dress. "Shouldn't have what, exactly?"

"I took advantage of you when I swore I'd never do such a thing. I wanted to protect you, so you wouldn't be forced to..." he trailed off and gestured helplessly at the rumpled sheets.

He stared at her in surprise as she burst out laughing.

"That's what you're worried about? You thought I let you fuck me because you're paying for it? Because I felt obligated? Relax, Lancelot. My reasons were much more selfish than that."

He winced at her choice of words. "Then why did you?"

"I might not be rubbing myself up against anyone while they're sleeping or spending all my time in the privy, but I have needs too." She had to pause for a minute to control her laughter before she continued. "I just wanted to feel a man inside me. Plain and simple."

"I don't understand," Lancelot said, giving her a skeptical look. "I thought you hated it. You certainly didn't seem to enjoy yourself when I… did what I did. Not that anyone could blame you considering what you've been through, of course. But..."

Millie looked him directly in the eyes as she spoke. "I do hate it when it's not my own choice. But when it is, I have the same needs as any other woman. What I've been forced to do hasn't changed that."

"This was truly what you wanted?"

"Well, I wouldn't go that far..."

"I'm sorry," he told her quietly, as guilt washed over him all over again. "Whatever I can do to make amends…"

"No, I didn't mean..." She sighed in exasperation as she tried to hide a smile. "Really, Lancelot, do you always take yourself so seriously? Yes, it was my choice. No obligation, I swear it. I only meant that the experience wasn't exactly…"

He flushed in embarrassment. "Yes, I'm sorry about that. It's just that I've never... been with a woman before. Well, now I have, of course. But I really don't know how…"

"I figured that much," she interrupted with a sly grin. "Well, if you meant what you said about making amends, I have a good idea as to where you might start."

Over the next few weeks, Lancelot gradually learned to put immediate gratification aside as he was taught numerous ways of giving and receiving satisfaction. His uncertainty faded as he began to approach pleasure from a place that felt much more natural to him... focusing on what he might give to another, not what he could take for himself.

He soon came to the realization that bedding a woman wasn't so different from combat. In both cases, a man couldn't just go charging in and unload everything he had without any forethought. Both required that he take his time and closely observe the vulnerabilities of his partner before settling on the most effective strategy.

The first night he reached this conclusion was the same night Jack appeared at his chamber door, anxiously informing them both that Millie's howls of pleasure could be heard all the way at the other end of the corridor.

Following that, his life began to revolve around two things – fighting by day and fucking by night. Both were acts that satisfied a physical need and exhausted him to the point where he had little room to think or feel beyond what was absolutely necessary. He clung to them both, desperate for the escape they offered.

Deep down, he knew it was the sheer hopelessness of his situation that drove his actions. He struggled to ignore the tiny voices inside him that spoke of honor, struggling to remind him of the man he'd once been. You're better than this. Somewhere inside, you're still better than this.

But he couldn't believe it. Not anymore.

What does it matter? he protested bitterly whenever they rose to haunt him. This is my life now. All the things I used to dream of are beyond my reach forever. I'll probably die here in this godforsaken place, and even if by some miracle I do escape, I can never return to who I was. Is it so wrong that I take what little comfort I still have left to me?

A shadow of his former self would appear in his mind, gazing back at him with eyes that were soft and hopeful, not hard and filled with despair.

You know it is. What happened to the Lancelot who believed in doing what was right, no matter the cost to himself? What would he think of what you're doing, killing men for profit and using a woman you don't love for your own pleasure?

Why should he be forced to answer to the hazy visage of a half-grown boy who didn't know the first thing about cruelty or starvation, desperation or fear?

That Lancelot was a naive fool who didn't understand the first thing about how the world works. I'm only doing what I have to in order to survive.

The spectre would just shake his head, giving him a sad smile.

Are you so sure of that? Is it the world that's to blame... or is it only yourself?

Again and again, Lancelot would push the thoughts away, temporarily driving them back with a brutal sparring match in the training yard or an impromptu tumble between the sheets with Millie. They grew quieter each time until finally, they haunted him no more.

"Lancelot?" Millie whispered in the darkness as they were lying in bed a few weeks later.

"Hmmm?" he said sleepily, hoping she wasn't about to tell him she wanted him to pleasure her again that night. He was exhausted.

"Who's Gwen?"

Suddenly, he was wide awake. He'd fought so hard to keep her from his mind throughout the recent months, unable to face the reality that she was lost him forever. Everything else he'd learned to bear, but not that. Never that.

And now, that name spoken aloud... it was like a sharp dagger through a heart he'd begun to believe had become hardened to any real emotion. He swallowed hard, struggling for composure before he could bring himself to reply.

"Where did you hear…?"

"You've said it quite a few times," she said nonchalantly as she reached out to trail a finger down his bare chest. "When you shoot your load…"

"Do you have to refer to it that way?"

She rolled her eyes. "When you finish, you often call for Gwen. I figured you knew."

"No, I didn't."

"Who is she? Not that I mind, of course. After all, I'm the one who gets to fuck you every night. Even if you're thinking about her while we're doing it, I still think I'm getting the better end of the deal."

Every word drove into Lancelot like a dagger, seeming to rip him out of the fog that had allowed him... to what? He shook his head in confusion, trying to understand how he'd managed to convince himself that what he'd been doing with Millie was somehow all right. What had led him to believe he was so far beyond himself that his feelings didn't matter anymore?

What have I been thinking? This isn't who I am. Everything else, yes, I can accept that I've failed... but not when it comes to my love for Gwen. I may not be betraying her, but I've been betraying myself. I've been betraying my heart.


"This has to stop," he said with more certainty than he'd felt about anything in months. "I'm sorry, I can't do this anymore. It shouldn't have happened in the first place."

Millie stared at him in consternation. "If you don't want me to bring it up again, just say so. It doesn't mean we can't..."

"Yes it does," he said firmly, then tried to make his voice more gentle. "It's nothing you've done. I just... I can't continue to dishonor myself this way."

"Because I'm a whore?" Millie said quietly.

"No! It's not you at all. The woman you spoke of... I love her. Even though she may be beyond my reach now, I always will. I thought I could put that from my mind and find comfort elsewhere, but I can't do it anymore. I'm sorry..."

She held up a hand to interrupt him. "I understand. Well no, actually, I don't. I don't pretend to know the first thing about love. But if this is making you unhappy, then I don't want it to continue either. It's as simple as that."

"You haven't made me unhappy. I've enjoyed..."

"But it's not what you want," she said bluntly.

He sighed heavily. "No, it isn't."

Millie opened her mouth to speak again, but the words never came. The chamber door burst open; they both scrambled to cover themselves as a frantic looking Jack ran into the room, gesturing wildly as he fought to control his ragged panting.

"T-the master! He-he's... get dressed! Quickly!"

Jack fidgeted as they pulled on their clothes, muttering to himself in a low voice while he waited.

"Ready? Good! Now come on, we have to hurry! Lancelot, bring your sword."

Lancelot frowned in confusion, but offered no protest as Jack handed him the weapon. He slid it into the scabbard at his waist and then they were off, following close behind as the boy ran headlong through the strangely empty corridors of the fortress.

"Jack, what...?" Millie started, sounding as anxious as Lancelot felt.

"Hush!" he hissed frantically.

"W-we can't go in there!" she protested as they reached Lord Elbert's chamber door. "What are you doing? Are you mad?"

Jack threw the door open and rushed inside. "Come on!" he cried urgently as they hesitated in the doorway. "There isn't much time!"

"No," Millie insisted in a frightened whisper. "He could wake up! What...?"

"He won't," Jack said with a confident smile, pulling a small vial from his trouser pocket and shaking it meaningfully. "I slipped plenty of this into his ale earlier tonight. Trust me, the walls could come down around him and he'd sleep right through it."

"But the guards..."

"The guards are busy trying to put out a fire down in the storage rooms. Nasty blaze, but that's what happens when you spill a cask of strong ale and set it alight. I imagine they'll have it out soon though, so let's hurry!"

"You set a fire?" she gasped. "You've been planning for this!"

"Of course I have," he said with an impatient snort. "I've just been biding my time until the right opportunity came along. The fire and the potion were easy enough, but we needed a fighter on our side. Now come on, Lancelot! Pull out your sword and kill him! Do it quickly!"

Lancelot turned pale. "You want me to run a sleeping man through? He's defenseless!"

"Defenseless?" Jack stared at him in shock. "How defenseless was he when he had you shackled? When he... bloody hell! You kill men in the cage all the time! What's the difference?"

"That's combat," Lancelot said quietly. "This is murder."

"It's not! Don't be a fool! You have to kill him and you have to do it now! This is the only chance we have, can't you see that? He's left us no other choice!"

Lancelot stared at him silently, struggling with himself as he realized just how desperately he wanted to see the man dead. He imagined the sweet satisfaction that would come from driving his sword through the sleeping body, even as he fought to reconcile that desire with a lifetime of belief that there was no justifiable reason for killing a defenseless man.

"But you said the potion would ensure he sleeps through anything," he tried one last time. "Can't we just go? We'd be well away from here before..."

It was Millie who suddenly grabbed his arm and gave him a violent shake. "Then what?" she said in a trembling voice. "He'll hunt us down! He won't give up until... Jack's right! This is the only way. Now do it! You have to, for all our sakes!"

And then Lancelot put all further thought from his mind as he drew his sword, lifting it above his head with both hands. With a grunt of both surrender and triumph, he drove the blade through Lord Elbert's thick chest with all the strength he had.

The man's eyes flew open in his last moments, staring up at the three faces above him in anguished bewilderment. He was beyond the ability to voice the question, but it came to them loud and clear nonetheless.


Millie stepped forward and spat on his dying face.

"Justice," she snarled with a coldness that chilled Lancelot right down to his bones.

No one stopped them as they rushed headlong through the back corridors and out into the chilly night air. They never heard so much as a single shout of alarm as Jack led them to the stables to find three saddled horses, ready and waiting for their escape.

Lancelot threw himself on the back of a chestnut gelding and took off after the others at a furious gallop, none of them slowing their frantic pace until the fortress was a tiny speck of grey in the distance.

And just like that, they were free.

Chapter Text

Chapter 36: A Taste of Humility

"You're asking me to let Arthur stay here?" Gwen sputtered as she stared at Merlin in shock.

He sat at the kitchen table, munching enthusiastically on the soft bread and hard cheese she'd served him a few minutes before.

"Yes," he mumbled around a mouthful of food. "Just for a few days. It's no big deal. He won't be any trouble, I promise."

She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "He'll be plenty of trouble and you know it. But what I don't understand is... why? What reason could he possibly have for wanting to impersonate a commoner? Something about proving his worth, you said? But how...?"

"He believes the other knights give him special treatment because of who he is."

"Well, he's right," she said with a tiny smirk.

"I know that, Gwen," Merlin agreed, trying without any success to hide a grin. "You know that. Everybody knows that. The problem is that he's realized it now as well, and it's been a bit of a blow to his pride. But if he competes in the tournament while disguised as a commoner and he wins..."

"Then his arrogance will be justified," she finished for him with a shake of her head. "Merlin, this is ridiculous."

"Yes, it is," he said, giving her a mischievous smile. "So... will you do it?"

Of all the arrogant, pigheaded... Gwen fumed silently to herself later that night, as she struggled in vain to find a comfortable position on the lumpy sacks she'd been forced to use as a bed. Does he think of no one but himself?

It had started from the moment Arthur had walked in her door. He'd greeted her politely, but when she'd walked away to prepare some food, she'd glanced back over her shoulder to find him looking around her home with open distaste. Even worse had been when she'd heard him comment under his breath to Merlin that he couldn't possibly be expected to stay there.

Doesn't he realize that I can hear him? she'd wondered with a great deal of resentment. 

Throughout the evening, it had been one thing after another. She hadn't minded cooking him supper, but it might have been nice to hear something a little more courteous than a mindless grunt when she'd set the plate in front of him. He could have at least picked up the pitcher and filled his own cup, rather than giving her an expectant look whenever it had run empty.

All of that was nothing, however, compared with their sleeping arrangements.

"Is this my bed?" he'd asked nonchalantly.

No, she corrected herself with a scowl of irritation. He didn't ask. If he'd asked, he would've waited for a response before taking over her bed like he owned it. How could a man with such a good heart be so oblivious to the feelings of others?

That was what baffled Gwen. Ever since the day she'd decided to try and see him in a better light, there'd been ample proof of his kindness, his honor, his willingness to put his own needs aside for the sake of his people.

He'd faced the Questing Beast without a trace of fear, nearly losing his life in his attempt to protect the kingdom. Since then, accompanied by his knights, he'd ventured out on many occasions to put down minor skirmishes or to intervene on behalf of even the poorest villagers who needed help.

From afar, Arthur was the perfect picture of a noble hero – unselfish, loyal, and honorable. He inspired a great deal of hope in Gwen as she dreamed of the day he'd come into power... a king worthy of the title, who'd transform Camelot into a kingdom where even the most humble citizen would never have to be afraid of the threat of tyranny or injustice.

Up close? All she wanted to do was smack him.

The following day did nothing to help Gwen's increasingly conflicted feelings. She'd been deeply offended at breakfast when he'd stared down at his bowl of porridge like it was something repulsive.

"Where's the rest?" he'd said in a tone that was almost demanding. "The meat and the cheese?"

He's your guest, she'd had to remind herself as she'd glared at him in stony silence from across the table. It would be rude to call him out on his behavior. Remember your manners, Gwen.

And yet just a few hours later, she'd found herself cheering enthusiastically for him from the sidelines, her heart surging with excitement as she'd watched him ride forth in heavy armor to face his opponents in the jousting tournament.

This was the Arthur who inspired all Gwen's hopes and expectations... not the spoiled houseguest who expected to be waited on hand and foot. Here was a man who didn't hesitate in the face of danger, charging forward fiercely and without hesitation to meet any opponent who might stand in his way.

Why does he feel such a need to prove himself? she'd wondered then. Look at him... none can hope to compete against his skill. Surely he must realize how good he is. Why is this so important to him?

Unable to resist the temptation, she asked the question rather bluntly later that evening.

"Why are you doing this?"

"I fear that people respect me just because of my title," he said, sounding surprisingly vulnerable.

"I don't believe that's true of everyone," Gwen said automatically, then wondered to herself if she really meant the words or if she'd said them merely because they were expected of her. It was a little troubling to realize that she couldn't be sure either way.

"Would you tell me if it were?" Arthur asked her skeptically, as if he could sense the direction of her thoughts.


"When I'm competing as William, my title doesn't matter," he told her in a quiet, sincere voice. "Nobody gives me any special treatment. So when I win this tournament... if I win this tournament, it will be because I deserve it and not because I am Prince Arthur."

Suddenly, she felt a great deal of sympathy for him. Did being born to privilege make him different than anyone else? Didn't every person long to be valued for who they really were inside? It had to be difficult never knowing where you stood with others... to realize they were obligated to treat you a certain way no matter what you said or did.

Arthur really does mean well, she thought herself with a sudden wave of compassion. Maybe I've been a little too critical of...

"I think I'll take a bath," he announced.

"That might be difficult seeing as I don't have a bathtub," she said, trying not to think about the level of ignorance that would lead him to believe that an average citizen of Camelot could afford one.

He's never lived in a place where bathtubs weren't readily available, she reminded herself. Don't judge him too harshly.

"Really?" he said, giving her a baffled look.

He could at least be courteous enough to hide his surprise, she thought in irritation. And then she caught herself, but before she could replace the thought with something a little more generous, he proceeded to make the situation even worse.

"Perhaps you could prepare me a bowl of hot water," he suggested carelessly. "I take it you have a bowl?"

"I think I can manage a bowl," she said, hearing the anger in her voice and no longer caring if he did as well. "Just walk all the way down to the well and fetch some water then, shall I?"

Special treatment indeed! Gwen fumed to herself throughout another sleepless night and well into the next day. He wanted to be treated like an ordinary person when he had something to gain from it, but not when it involved being considerate of anyone else!

If she truly believed him to be the type of man who cared nothing for others, she wouldn't be bothered by his selfishness. After all, it had never really affected her in the past... not until she'd begun to look closer and had recognized the goodness that lay beneath his pompous behavior.

He's better than this, she realized in a flash of clarity. That was why it upset her so much. This wasn't really him, only what he'd been taught throughout his life. And who was there to question his behavior when he was wrong?

Gwen found herself inadvertently thrust into that very position just a few hours later.

She'd never intended for Arthur to know about her miserable sleeping arrangements... he'd come in quite unexpectedly to find the curtain to the pantry drawn back. No, she hadn't intended to point out that it was his thoughtlessness that had robbed her of her own bed either.

The words that came out of her mouth shocked her even as she spoke them, but she just couldn't stop herself as all of her frustrations came pouring out. She was appalled as she listened to herself scold him for being rude, arrogant, and childish, then cringed inwardly as she went on to chastise him quite bluntly for his poor manners.

Arthur just listened quietly. He didn't flinch at the harsh criticisms, nor did he raise so much as an eyebrow to stop her. He just listened, which left her a little stunned as she brought her emotions under control and hastily added a respectful "my lord" to the end of her rant.

"Is there anything else you'd like to add?" he asked when she'd finished.

No, I think that's it."

Gwen, you're standing here insulting the Crown Prince of Camelot, she told herself, though the reminder came too late to make a difference. She suddenly felt uneasy as she imagined what King Uther's reaction would be if he'd heard the way a servant had just dared to speak to his son.

Arthur's not his father, she reminded herself, even as she realized it was a reassurance she didn't really need anymore. You have nothing to fear from him.

"You're right," Arthur said, his voice soft and sincere "You've invited me into your home and I have behaved appallingly."

Any further annoyance she might have felt faded away at his words, then disappeared entirely at his promise to cook her supper that night to make up for his behavior. It was difficult to remain angry with a man who took criticism so well, not to mention one who showed so much eagerness to make amends for his mistakes.

He really is endearing in his own clumsy way, she thought to herself with a smile as she wandered aimlessly through the streets of Camelot just a few minutes later. Imagine... Arthur Pendragon cooking supper for simple little Gwen. No one would believe it if she told them.

This suspicion was confirmed as she ran into Merlin, who looked at her as if she'd just sprouted horns when she said the words aloud. He rushed off in the direction of her house and she grinned inwardly, imagining the two men fumbling with the raw chicken and uncooked vegetables she'd left out for that evening's supper.

I'm sure it'll be burnt to a crisp, but I'll happily eat it anyway, she thought to herself in fond amusement. Arthur deserved a little credit for trying so hard.

To her surprise, however, there was no acrid smell of charred meat in the air when she arrived home an hour later. The mouthwatering aroma of perfectly roasted chicken filled the room instead as Arthur presented her with a beautiful supper, even going so far as to pull out her chair for her.

She began to forget why she'd ever been annoyed with him in the first place as they laughed and joked over the delicious food. Merlin must have helped him quite a lot, she thought to herself as she smiled at him from across the table. Well, I'll never let on that I know.

Feeling completely at ease in his presence for the first time, Gwen found herself enjoying the pleasantness of his smile and the warmth in his blue eyes... little things she'd never quite picked up on before.

He really is quite handsome when he makes an effort to put his arrogance aside, she thought with a smile as he insisted on clearing their dishes himself. I can't believe I've been around him for so many years and never noticed how...

But just then, she noticed something else. She frowned in confusion, then felt a rush of disappointment as she stared at the royal seal that was stamped on the bottom of the plates

He didn't cook me supper at all, she fumed to herself as she called him out on his dishonesty. No, he just sent a servant off to fetch it from the palace kitchens like usual. Only this is worse, because he lied to me. I can't believe I actually started to think...

"We had a nice meal together. What does it matter where it came from?"

"Because I thought you'd shown some humility!" she responded, not understanding why she felt like weeping at that moment. "I thought you'd done something kind for me even though I'm just a servant! A good king should respect his people, no matter who they are!"

She was about to walk away, resigned to the belief that he would never get it, when he caught her arm in a grasp that was surprisingly gentle. Reluctantly, she turned back to face him.

"I know I have much to learn," he said quietly. "I'm terrible at some things... cooking being one of them. But also knowing what to say to someone I care about."

The words hung in the air between them as she stared up at him in disbelief.

Someone I care about...

Arthur has feelings for me, she suddenly realized with a great deal of surprise. I think I might care about him, too. It's not just about the kind of king I hope he'll be or how I'd like him to treat other people. I don't know what it is, but I feel something for him.

With that in mind, it seemed strange that for the first time in months, she found herself thinking of Lancelot as she drifted off to sleep that night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 37: Sleepless Nights

"This looks like a good place to pass the night," Jack said as they brought their horses to a standstill beside what appeared to be an uninhabited cottage. "Close enough to the river for fresh water and decent grazing for the horses."

Lancelot raised a skeptical eyebrow as he studied the ramshackle building. It was so thickly covered with moss that it was impossible to tell if it even had a door, though he supposed it didn't matter. There were large gaps all around the dwelling where the walls had collapsed in on themselves long ago.

"We'd probably be better off sleeping outside," he remarked as he dismounted and helped Millie do the same. "There's no telling what might be living in there."

Jack ignored him and ducked inside the cottage, only to emerge a few seconds later with a shout of alarm. Lancelot and Millie grinned at each other as he swatted frantically at the cloud of bats that had come swarming out behind him.

Lancelot entered more cautiously, unsheathing his sword and disposing of several rats before inviting the others to join him. Aside from a thick carpet of decaying leaves on the floor, the cottage was completely bare.

"We'll need a fire," Lancelot said as he glanced at Jack. "Can you gather some wood?"

The boy gave him a sullen look. "I thought the point of escaping was that I wouldn't have to take orders anymore. Why don't you get it yourself?"

Lancelot let out a heavy sigh. "I'd be glad to do it, but I need to find us some kind of food before it's too dark to see. Or would you rather wait until morning to eat?"

Soon enough, the room was illuminated by a cheerful fire that chased the chill from the cool night air. A fat trout Lancelot had been fortunate enough to spear began to sizzle on its makeshift spit as they all stared at it hungrily. They devoured the food in silence, none caring about burnt fingers or tongues as they rushed to fill their famished bellies.

"So what are we supposed to do now?" Millie asked after they'd finished. "Where are we supposed to go?"

Those were questions that had haunted Lancelot ever since the excitement of escape had worn off. There'd been no time to think about practical matters such as supplies or gold for their journey on their way out of the fortress.

He patted his empty pockets just in case, then wistfully remembered the coins he'd carefully hidden beneath the mattress in the bedchamber he'd so recently left behind. It hadn't been much, but even a handful of gold could have made a world of difference in their current situation.

"We'll have to find the nearest town and sell the horses, I suppose," he mused thoughtfully. "That should bring enough coin to provide food and shelter for a week or two. And after that..."

"After that... what?" Millie prodded impatiently as he trailed off into silence.

"I'll think of something."

"That's hardly reassuring," she said with a derisive snort, though he could see the uncertainty in her eyes.

"Why are you asking him anyway?" Jack interjected with a scowl. "Why not ask me? Neither of you would even be here without my help. I'm the one who planned the escape and had the guts to carry it out, am I not? If it was up to him, you'd still be..."

Millie glared at him as he spoke, then cut him off before he was finished.

"And you think that makes you so clever? Where are our supplies then? Did you smuggle any food or blankets into the saddlebags? Did you bring any gold that might help us? What exactly did you expect us to do once we were free?"

Jack picked up a stick and poked angrily at the fire. "So much for gratitude."

"All right then," Lancelot said calmly. "Why don't you tell us what you think we should do?"

"Go our separate ways," the boy said after a long silence. "Each of us can find work. Earn gold. Buy ourselves a decent home and live the way we choose. We're free now, aren't we? We can do anything we like."

"And you really believe it's that simple?" Lancelot asked him, attempting to keep the condescending tone out of his voice. Was I ever so naive as this boy? he wondered to himself. Was there ever a time when I believed as he does... that I could just bend the world to my will?

"I'm not afraid of hard work," Jack informed him confidently. "I have no intention of being anyone's servant again, of course, but I'm willing to do almost anything else. Well, except mucking out stables. I don't think I'd enjoy that very much."

Lancelot struggled to keep his real thoughts to himself. "What did you do before you were brought to Greytower? Did you have a trade?"

"I was seven years old when I was taken. Barely even remember where I came from, let alone what I did while I was there. I'm like this one here," he paused and pointed his stick vaguely at Millie. "Only life we've ever known was in that shithole."

Lancelot released a weary sigh and nodded in resignation. "Well, I suppose we can't figure it all out tonight. Let's get some rest and we'll talk about it more tomorrow."

Despite his exhaustion, Lancelot found himself unable to sleep as he stared up at the crescent moon through a large gap in the ceiling. How many months had he spent in captivity? It was disconcerting to realize that he couldn't be sure if the cool air around him was due to a chill autumn breeze or the slow thawing of an approaching spring.

Had a year passed since he'd left Camelot? Or was it two?

For a moment, he longed to lose himself in memories that had lain untouched throughout the recent months. He wanted to remember the cheerful smile and kind blue eyes of a dear friend, to dream of the innocence of first love found in a sweetly intoxicating kiss on a warm summer night.

When he did close his eyes, however, all he could see was the bleak road that lay ahead. It was disheartening to realize he was no better off than he'd been before his capture, especially since this time, it wasn't just himself he had to worry about. What was he supposed to do now?

Jack might be too young and arrogant to understand how difficult it would be to survive on his own, but Millie was a more practical sort. Lancelot had seen the uncertainty in her eyes as she'd looked to him for a solution. She didn't have the first idea how to provide for herself and she knew it.

I'm responsible for them both, he thought uneasily. He had to do something to keep them safe, to be sure they'd have food and shelter. But how? Nothing had changed – the art of combat was the only skill he had to rely on.

Reaching out to touch the sword that lay on the floor beside him, he mindlessly stroked the hilt as a solution began to form in his mind.

Yes, he did still have this. Would it really be so terrible to continue earning a living by the sword? After all, the fighting itself hadn't been bad, only being forced to do it against his will. But on his own terms, all he'd need to do was win the fight and collect his payment, and then move on to the next opportunity. He wouldn't be obligated to serve under anyone's command, nor surrender his freedom again.

But just as he'd begun to feel satisfied with this solution, Lancelot frowned. That life might work well enough for him, but what about the others? He couldn't just drag them from place to place, constantly exposing them to the hard, dangerous men who sought out that type of entertainment.

No, he would have no choice but to leave them behind... but where? They didn't have a place in the world to go, and he certainly didn't have one to offer. He needed gold in order to provide shelter... but he'd have to provide shelter in order to go out and earn that gold to begin with. How was he supposed to manage that?

Lancelot wrestled with the dilemma for quite some time, then finally surrendered with a sigh of defeat as exhaustion took over and his eyelids grew heavy. I'll figure it out when I wake up. Tomorrow, I'll find the answer.

Gwen lay curled on her side, restlessly twirling a corner of blanket around her fingers as she struggled to fall asleep. She closed her eyes several times, only to open them again as the empty silence of the room seemed to close in around her.

With a frustrated sigh, she rose and dressed, then threw a light shawl around her shoulders to ward off the chill of the early spring night before she made her way outside.

Wandering the streets of Camelot at such a late hour was probably not the safest idea, but she felt as if she might scream just to fill the silence if she stayed inside for even a moment longer. She needed to walk, to run, to do anything that might chase away the awful restlessness that plagued her.

It had been this way ever since Arthur had returned to his life at the palace the week before. She'd lain awake each night, missing the rustle of blankets and even the snores that came along with having another person close at hand. Solitude she thought she'd grown used to over the previous year had suddenly become unbearable all over again.

Gwen knew these feelings had nothing to do with Arthur himself. She'd felt much the same in those first terrible weeks after her father had been executed, as if her home was some sort of void she could never quite fill on her own.

These feelings eventually went away before, she reminded herself as she stopped to gaze up at the moon hanging low in the sky above her. This time will be no different. I just have to be patient and let them run their course.

What she knew to be loneliness was simple enough to reconcile in her mind. The other feelings Arthur's visit had stirred inside her were not so easily understood.

It was like a dream to her now. By some strange impulse, she'd given him a favor to wear for luck in the jousting tournament. Why? Perhaps she'd been caught up in the excitement of it all? It had been a lovely fantasy, imagining herself as a highborn lady giving her blessing to a handsome knight as he set out to conquer his enemies... like something out of the legends she'd grown up with as a child.

It had seemed silly right after she'd made the gesture... until Arthur had stared deeply into her eyes, then brought his lips down to meet her own in a lingering kiss.

The Prince of Camelot just kissed me, was all she'd been able to think of at the time. Arthur Pendragon just kissed me. The future king, who could easily choose from all of the most beautiful women in five kingdoms….

It was only after the tournament had ended and Arthur had returned the palace that she'd been able to think about it on a more practical level.

Dwelling on the kiss itself had inevitably brought Lancelot to mind, as she couldn't help but compare the only two men she'd ever experienced in such a way. Lancelot's kisses had been hungry, passionate, causing an intense longing that had made her feel as if she was on the brink of losing control.

Arthur's kiss had been sweet and tender, even surprisingly comfortable for something so unexpected. A relaxing summer day that soothed the senses, rather than a violent thunderstorm that stirred them to a fever pitch.

Gwen would be lying to herself to say that she hadn't enjoyed the experience... but it was nothing like her memory of kissing Lancelot. It had been a pleasant feeling that was enough just as it was, not an overwhelming rush of sensation that had left her desperately craving more.

As she thought about it further, she suddenly realized that the same comparison extended to all her feelings concerning Arthur. There was no point in denying that she felt some affection for him, but it was based on a feeling of safety and comfort, not driving passion and deep emotion.

That's what I felt when he said he cared about me, she realized as she slowly made her way home and undressed for bed. I do care about him in return... but only as a friend. If I felt some small attraction while I was caught up in the moment, well, he's a handsome man. But whatever I may have felt wasn't strong enough to mean anything. I know that now.

The realization brought her a great deal of relief. Even if it were possible she might develop real feelings for Arthur, why even leave herself open to that possibility? What use would there be in falling in love with a man she could never have?

No... she'd had enough of uncertainty and broken hearts caused by men who were forever beyond her reach. Better to keep it limited to friendship on both sides, avoiding any hurt or confusion that would be inevitable if it ever truly crossed those lines.

Satisfied with this conclusion, she tried not to think about the lingering gazes that had begun to follow her around the room whenever Arthur was near. She refused to admit to herself that the look in those blue eyes was swiftly becoming something that went far beyond friendly affection.

Instead, she closed her own eyes and drifted off into a peaceful sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter 38: What Goes Unseen

The ramshackle cottage was empty when Lancelot awoke the following morning. He forced his weary eyelids open with a reluctant groan, then blinked in confusion as he struggled to remember where he was and exactly how he'd gotten there.

This isn't my chamber. What...?

Suddenly, his mind conjured up a vivid image of a sword being driven through Lord Elbert's chest, a swift and unanticipated act that had bought him and his companions their freedom. He was somewhat surprised as he examined his conscience, realizing the shame he'd expected to feel over such a dishonorable act had never come.

No, the aftermath had only given him a deep feeling of satisfaction, which he couldn't quite bring himself to feel guilty about. Perhaps it was a poor reflection upon his own character, but he found it difficult to see any lack of honor in killing such a despicable man. How many victims, innocent people like Millie and Jack, had been saved from a miserable fate through his actions?

Maybe the ends really do justify the means sometimes, he mused to himself as he rose and pulled on his boots. It was an idea that made perfect sense in reality, far more than those old codes of honor he was starting to believe had been imagined for a world that didn't exist.

"Hello?" he called, stepping through one of the gaps in the crumbling walls and raising a hand to shield his eyes from the bright morning sunlight. "Jack? Millie?"

"Over here!"

Lancelot turned his head in the direction of the call, then stopped short as his eyes fell upon Millie standing on the bank of the river. She was naked from head to toe, making no move to cover herself as she raised a quizzical eyebrow at him.

He quickly averted his gaze, but not before the appealing sight of milk white skin dusted with a smattering of light freckles burned itself into his mind. Try as he might, it was impossible to push away the vision of small, rose tipped breasts and the little thatch of bright red hair that promised pleasures he knew all too well. He cursed under his breath as he felt himself grow hard.

"Really, Lancelot," he heard her say as he gritted his teeth and stared at a pine cone on the ground at his feet. "I'd wager you've been inside me nearly half a hundred times by now. Under the circumstances, it's a little absurd to play the honorable gentleman, don't you think?"

The tone in her voice was playfully mocking, but there was an edge to it that indicated she was hurt by his rejection. He sighed heavily as a wave of guilt washed over him, suddenly realizing that what had happened between them had gone too far... and not only for the reasons which had already caused him to put an end to it.

His own reasons, which were the only factor that had driven him all along. The need to satisfy his cravings, the constant desire for physical release, the temptation of a pleasurable escape from the bleak hopelessness he'd struggled so hard to push away. Even when he'd chosen to stop, he'd been entirely focused on his own feelings in doing so. He'd given little thought to how she might be affected by his decision.

He raised his head again, taking a deep breath as he forced his eyes to meet hers. What he found looking back at him was a vulnerability he'd never noticed before, as a flurry of sadness, uncertainty, desire, and perhaps even a little fear played across her features. He wasn't sure if it was love he saw in her eyes, but it couldn't be very far from it.

How long has she felt this way? he asked himself angrily. How long has this been going on, while I was too selfish to even notice?

"Lancelot," she said softly, moving closer and reaching out to trail her fingers down his chest as she peeked up at him through lowered lashes. "No matter what you said the other night, we both know what you want. Why do you deny us both?"

Why indeed? His thoughts became scattered and vague as his body instinctively responded to her nearness. She chuckled low in her throat, giving him a knowing look as her fingers drifted lower to brush against his hardness through the fabric of his trousers. Despite his earlier resolve, he let out a shuddering sigh, pressing himself more firmly into the touch.

It would be so easy to give in. She had a point – why should he deny himself, when she was obviously willing, even eager for him? Just one more time, one more chance to feel that sweet release, and… no, this wasn't right. He'd only be using her, and he was finished with that.

"Stop," he said hoarsely, reaching down to push her hands away from the laces of his trousers. She didn't seem to hear him at first; he groaned in both desire and frustration as her fingers reached inside and wrapped around his erection, pulling it free. "We have to stop. I... damn it, Millie. Enough!"

He immediately regretted the harshness in his tone as she took a clumsy step backward, staring at him as if he'd struck her as her eyes filled with tears. Guilt overwhelmed him; he held out his hands in a helpless gesture as she bent down to retrieve her clothing.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."

"To what?" she said in a muffled voice as she jerked the worn gray dress over her head. "To turn me down? On the contrary, that's exactly what you intended to do. You wanted me to stop and so you stopped me."

"Perhaps, but I didn't mean to be so harsh about it."

Millie snorted contemptuously, though her voice was shaky when she spoke. "Do you think it matters? I've dealt with far worse. Besides, I didn't leave you much of a choice. I just assumed you didn't really mean what you said the other night. Men rarely do, after all."

"But I did mean it," he said quietly. "What we were doing wasn't right. Not for either of us, but especially not for you."

She turned and glared at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

He hesitated before he spoke. "I... it was only about pleasure for me. I knew all along that I'd never have anything else to offer. I convinced myself it was all right in the beginning, but now... to continue when it's clear that it means something more for you..."

"You're wrong, Lancelot. But even if you weren't, how is it any business of yours what I might feel or not feel? What gives you the right to decide what's best for me?"

"Because I don't want to be responsible for hurting you," he responded quietly.

"Have you ever considered that this might be enough for me, just as it is?" she said more quietly, her anger suddenly melting into a stark vulnerability that wrenched at his heart. "No man has ever treated me half as well as you do, whether you feel anything for me or not. I'd be a fool to wish for anything more than that."

Pained by her words, he cursed under his breath. "This is the price of the life you've lived, isn't it? You can't see what you truly deserve and even if you can, you're afraid to hope it could be yours."

"And what is it you think I deserve?" Millie said softly as she seated herself on an overgrown log, staring up at him with wide eyes full of curiosity.

He knelt beside her, taking her hand as he spoke. "You deserve someone who will love you with his whole heart and soul. Someone who'll live for your happiness, and would gladly die for you should the need arise. You deserve to be someone's first choice... his only choice."

"Is that the way you love... Gwen?" she asked him quietly.

"Yes," he whispered. "In all those ways and more."

She paused for a moment, clearly understanding it was a delicate subject. "Then why aren't you with her?" she finally said, her blunt nature overcoming her hesitancy. "You said she was beyond your reach. Is she... is she dead?"

"No!" he exclaimed, horrified by the suggestion. "Good lord, no."

"Married to someone else?" she prodded, raising a quizzical eyebrow at him. "Repulsed by the sight of you?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"Then how she beyond your reach?"

He sighed, wishing she'd drop the subject. "Because I'm not worthy of her, and I see no way to better myself or my circumstances."

Millie looked at him skeptically. "Did she decide you weren't good enough? Ask you to change to meet her standards?"

"No, of course not! Gwen isn't like that. She'd never..."

"Oh, I see," she said with a smirk. "The price of the life you've lived? You might want to take that statement and apply it to yourself, Lancelot."

"What?" He blinked in confusion, then realized she'd been referring to his earlier comment. "No, this is a completely different situation. Gwen deserves a better life than I could possibly hope to give her. I have little to offer, and she deserves..."

"Would you tell me I was unworthy of someone I loved because of who I am? That I didn't deserve them because of the things I've had to do in order to survive? Or would you tell me that..."

"It's not the same thing," he interrupted as he rose to his feet. "You don't understand."

"But how is it...?"

"I don't want to talk about it anymore," he said dismissively, turning his mind to more practical matters so he wouldn't have to think about it either. "Where's Jack? I haven't even seen him this morning."

"Gone," she said matter-of-factly as she headed back to the cottage, leaving him no choice but to follow. "Rode out of here early this morning, going on and on about how he was off to seek his fortune. Bloody fool."

He stared at her in disbelief. "Gone? Why didn't you stop him?"

"Why would I? He's a free man now, isn't he? If he wants to leave, I say good riddance!"

"He isn't a man, only a half grown boy who doesn't have the faintest idea how to survive out in the world. I can't imagine he'll get very far without our help."

"Without your help, you mean," she said bluntly, staring at him in a way that almost made him squirm. "Lancelot, for someone with such a low opinion of himself, you seem to know an awful lot about what's best for everyone else."

"I don't..."

She silenced him with a raised eyebrow.

Despite her criticisms, Millie seemed all too willing to leave the solution to their current predicament in Lancelot's hands, questioning him again later that night as they sat beside the fire and consumed yet another meal of cooked trout. Unfortunately, it was the only meat he'd been able to provide.

"I'm so tired of fish. I swear, if I eat any more trout, I'm going to start growing scales. What are we supposed to do? We can't stay here forever."

"I know we can't," he said with a heavy sigh. "We'll leave in the morning and... well, I suppose I'll go back to fighting wherever I can find the opportunity. But I'm afraid that only solves part of our problem."

"What? No! Isn't there something else you could do?"

He shook his head, having already resigned himself to his fate. "I have no other choice. The art of combat is the only skill I know, and I have no intention of allowing either of us to starve."

"But where does that leave me? Am I to come with you, or will you just leave me to my own devices?"

"Neither. I'll find a safe place for you and provide for your care. You won't be alone, I promise you that."

She looked equal parts offended and relieved. "Where is it you're planning to stash me? And what if I don't want to stay there?"

"I don't know yet. I'll have to give the matter more thought."

"But why can't I come with you? I won't be any trouble, I promise."

"Millie, I'm not worried about you causing trouble," he said, hardly able to stand the pleading in her eyes. "It just wouldn't be safe for you. Do you want to be around the kind of men you were forced to deal with before? You know what they're like, perhaps even better than I do. I refuse to expose you to that again."

"Then where will I go? Wherever it is that you came from before you were brought to Greytower?"

Where I came from... Lancelot mused thoughtfully. There was the distant village he hardly remembered anymore. And then there was Camelot, where he had no right to ask favors of anyone. Other than that, there'd only been inns and taverns where he hadn't a soul, along with lonely forests filled with cold and starvation. But there'd also been a place called Oakview, where he'd been lucky enough to find solace in an unexpected friend.

When the solution came to him, it was so obvious that he couldn't imagine why he hadn't thought of it in the first place.

"Nessie," he said as his face broke into a huge grin. "I'll take you to Nessie."

Chapter Text

Chapter 39: A Faithful Ally

"The Sleeping Goat?" Millie said as she stared up the battered sign with a frown of consternation. "Fitting name, I suppose. Only an animal would want to spend the night in such a miserable hovel. Lancelot, why can't you just take me with you?"

"You know why," he said, letting out a weary sigh as he reached up to help her dismount. "Come on, let's go inside and get something to eat."

"No," she retorted, glaring down at him with a stubborn scowl on her dirty face. "You must be mad if you expect me to stay in a place like this."

Lancelot shook his head in frustration. After having dealt with more than two weeks of constant griping, he wasn't the least bit surprised by her negative reaction. Throughout the course of their journey, all she'd talked about was how much she hated the meager food he managed to provide, the hours on horseback, the lack of fresh clothing or hot baths. There'd been no end to her causes for complaint, or reasons why she held him personally responsible for her misery.

Whenever a sharp retort would cross his mind, however, it had been the look in her eyes that had silenced his tongue. It was a haunting combination of hurt, fear, and vulnerability that revealed the real reason behind her growing resentment. She was terrified by the realization that the only person in the world she had to rely on was a man who'd rejected her and intended to leave her to fend for herself among strangers.

There's no other option, he reminded himself firmly as he made another attempt to urge her down from the horse. Why must she make this so much more difficult than it needs to be?


"Stop it!" she hissed furiously as he reached up in an attempt to pry her fingers free from the horse's mane. "I told you, I'm not going in there!"

"Millie, I don't have the patience for this," he said tersely, feeling the last of his sympathy fading away in the face of her continued resistance. "I'm exhausted and half starved and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Now let's go inside and get something to eat. Get down."

"Neither of us would be so hungry to begin with if you weren't such a miserable hunter."

He ignored the insult, not giving a damn what she thought of his lackluster hunting skills or any of the other shortcomings that inspired her constant abuse. Suddenly, the overwhelming desire to get her settled and be rid of her company as quickly as possible didn't make him feel so guilty anymore. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, he wasn't sure how much longer he could tolerate her sniping.

"Am I going to have to remove you from this horse myself?"

"Try it and see what happens," she said, giving him a challenging smirk.

He made to reach for her, with every intention of grabbing her around the waist and pulling her down from the horse whether she liked it or not. Before he could touch her, however, she kicked him in the chest with what must have been all the strength she possessed. He stumbled backward with a grunt of surprise, losing his balance and landing hard on his backside.

Stunned by the blow, he struggled to take in the air that had been knocked out of him, even as he fought to control the helpless rage that overwhelmed him at the sound of her merry laughter.

"I am going inside," he practically snarled as he rose to his feet. "Join me or stay out here and starve like a stubborn fool. It makes no difference to me."

Despite his anger, the exhaustion that lay heavy upon his shoulders, and the insistent hunger that had plagued him for hours, he felt better the instant he stepped through the door of the inn. His nostrils filled with the odors of roasting meat and wood smoke, comforting, familiar smells that made him feel more at home than he had for as long as he could remember.

"Now there's one ugly face I thought I'd never see again!" bellowed a cheerful voice, and he couldn't help the grin that spread across his face as a heavyset woman wearing a stained apron made her way across the room. She raised a hand to smooth the messy tendrils of blonde hair back from her brow, leaving a streak of soot in their place.

"Nessie," he said fondly, relieved that she'd recognized him instantly. "How are you?"

She examined him from head to toe, then sniffed and wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Much better than you by the looks of it. By the smell of it, too. Have you not washed since the last time I saw you?"

"I bathed just this morning, actually," he said with a smile.

"Yes, well, you might want to consider using soap instead of horse dung next time."

Lancelot's chuckle turned into a grunt of pain as she reached out and thumped him affectionately on the chest. It wasn't a particularly forceful gesture, but his flesh was already tender and beginning to bruise from the brutal kick he'd received just a few minutes before. She looked at him curiously, her casually lifted eyebrow doing little to disguise the concern in her pale blue eyes.

"You all right?"

"Yes," he responded a little uncertainly. "Well, no, not exactly. What I mean is, I was wondering if I might speak with you for a moment? And if I might have a little something to eat?"

Nessie smacked her forehead. "Of course! Listen to me rattling on about baths and other such nonsense, while you're standing here looking for all the world like a man who hasn't had a decent meal in weeks. Go and find yourself a table. I'll be back as soon as I can."

A few minutes later, Lancelot hungrily devoured a plate of roasted chicken as she settled herself at the table across from him. She waited patiently, allowing him time to finish his meal before seeming to expect him to speak. It didn't take long.

"Thank you," he said gratefully, pausing to take a drink of ale as he struggled to find the words to explain his current predicament. "I should tell you why I disappeared without a word the last time I was here. I'm sure you must have wondered what…"

Nessie interrupted him by waving a dismissive hand, a careless action that was sharply contradicted by the avid curiosity in her eyes. "You know I don't ask questions. Figured you had your reasons. Every man does."

"Sometimes those who ask the fewest questions are the most deserving of answers," he responded quietly. "You were kind to me. Kinder than anyone has been for as long as I can remember. You're entitled to an explanation."

She looked pleased, even as she fidgeted uncomfortably in her chair. "Wasn't that kind."

Lancelot let the comment pass, knowing she'd never openly acknowledge the gentle heart that lay beneath her brusque manners and careless insults. Instead, he took a deep breath and told her everything that had happened since the moment he'd been ambushed in the woods. He spoke nothing of what had passed between himself and Millie, of course, but it was clear by her raised eyebrow that she came to her own conclusions where that was concerned.

"Sounds like you've had a rough time of it. Glad to hear you killed the bastard, though I'm surprised you didn't do it sooner. Oh well, suppose it doesn't matter now that it's done. You're alive and free, aren't you? Couldn't ask for a better outcome than that. What are you planning to do now? And what about this... companion of yours?"

"I have the means to secure more than enough gold to provide for us both. Myself and Millie, I mean. But it's hard, dangerous work and I can't take her with me. I'll be around the same kind of men who've mistreated her all her life. I can't expose her to that again. "

"No, you most certainly can't. I'm assuming you mean to continue with the mercenary fighting then?"

"Yes. It's the best option I have."

She studied him with sympathetic eyes. "You're better than that, you know."

"Even if that's true, it doesn't matter," he said with a heavy sigh. "I see no other opportunity available to me, other than struggle and probable starvation once winter comes. Even if I was willing to accept that for myself, I can't inflict that sort of hardship on someone who's depending on me for survival. She needs..."

"I wasn't trying to talk you out of doing what you need to do," Nessie interrupted him, speaking more gently than she ever had in his presence. "I know the way the world works, Lancelot. Ordinary men are forced to sell their souls for a bit of bread, while high lords feast themselves without needing to lift a finger. In the end, we do what we must to survive. It's just good to to be reminded that it's not the fate you deserve."

"Thank you," he said softly, touched by the words.

She cut him off with an awkward snort, plump cheeks turning red with embarrassment. "Listen to me, blathering on about all sorts of nonsense. Must be getting senile in my old age."

"I need to leave her here with you," he said abruptly, giving up the struggle to find a more tactful way to broach the subject. "I'm sorry to ask, but I have nowhere else to take her. I know I have no right to request favors of you, but..."

"Every man has a right to ask for help when he needs it, Lancelot. But whether or not a person has the means to provide that assistance is another matter entirely. There's barely enough coin to keep food on my table as it is anymore, even without another mouth to feed. As you can see," she paused to wave her hand around the empty room, "there are few paying customers around here these days."

"No, I didn't mean..." Lancelot responded hastily, embarrassed that he hadn't made his intentions more clear to begin with. "I mean, I'd pay you. Of course I would. I'd be happy to cover all of her expenses, as well as a little something extra for your trouble."

Of course, he could only hope he'd be able to find the number of opportunities it would require to maintain such a commitment.

If Nessie shared that thought, she didn't voice her concerns. "She must mean a great deal to you if you're willing to make such a sacrifice," she commented instead. "Won't be easy to leave behind the woman you love, you know. Sure you can manage it?"

"I don't love her," he said flatly. "I've never loved her."

It might have been unnecessary to say it aloud, but leaving someone under the impression that he loved anyone other than Gwen made him feel ill. It was a lie his heart simply wasn't able to tolerate. Yes, leaving the woman he loved behind had been agony. Leaving Millie, however, would be a welcome relief.

Nessie studied his face, then gave a nod of satisfaction. "Just as I suspected," she said without a trace of surprise in her voice. "You really are doing this for unselfish reasons. Admit it – the girl herself means nothing to you, even if you might feel some sense of obligation toward her."

"You tricked me," Lancelot said aloud, quickly realizing she must have known he'd never own up to the truth if she'd asked him outright. She'd preyed on his instinctive reactions instead, which he had to admit was quite an effective strategy.

"Of course I tricked you," she said nonchalantly. "You men have your fists and swords. But women have our own ways of getting what we want, and the weapons we use aren't always tits and tail. Best you remember that, Lancelot, in case one of us actually wants to do you harm someday."

He nodded solemnly, inwardly amused by her harmless manipulation. "I believe the one I left outside would like to do me a great deal of harm, now that you mention it."

"Well, can't say that I blame her!" she exclaimed with a chuckle. "Anyway, you know I'm going to help you, softhearted fool that I am. How much longer are you going to leave her sitting out there to wonder? Poor thing must be as famished as you were just a little while ago."

"I didn't tell her to wait," he admitted, desperately hoping she wouldn't change her mind when she realized how difficult Millie could be. "She refused to come inside. She's been... a little hard to live with since I made my intentions known. When I tried to get her to dismount, she kicked me."

Nessie stared at him in disbelief. "Show me."


"Lift up your shirt and show me where she kicked you. That's why you flinched when you first came in and I smacked you there, isn't it? Show it to me."

Reluctantly, Lancelot rose and lifted the tattered hem of his shirt to reveal the angry purple bruise, unable to help a wince as she came around the table to probe at it with gentle fingers. Something dark flitted across her features and without warning, she was storming across the room with eyes full of righteous fury.

"Nessie!" he called after her. "I wouldn't..."

The heavy door slammed shut with a resounding thud.

She returned only a few minutes later, wearing a satisfied smile on her broad face as a shamefaced Millie followed closely in her footsteps. Lancelot watched in amazement as the latter came to stand in front of him, bowing her head as she mumbled what sounded very much like an apology.

"What was that?" Nessie asked briskly as she hovered over the younger girl. "We can't quite hear you."

Millie cleared her throat and spoke a little more loudly. "Lancelot, I am truly sorry for my appalling behavior these past two weeks."

"And?" Nessie encouraged her.

"I should be ashamed of myself for treating you the way I have, considering everything you've done to help me. Please be assured that I'll be much more mindful of my attitude in the future."


Millie hesitated for a moment, then quickly opened her mouth to speak when she noticed Nessie's warning glare.

"And I am a horse's ass."

"Good!" the older woman proclaimed with a satisfied grin as she winked at a speechless Lancelot. "Very good. Now let's get you some food, Millie, and then I'll see that you're properly settled. I've no doubt you'll be quite comfortable here."

Millie followed her without protest.

Chapter Text

Chapter 40: A Twist of Fate

Lancelot set forth from Oakview with little more than the ragged clothing on his back, a few silver coins, and his trusted sword. Selling both horses had been difficult, but he'd wanted to leave behind as much gold as possible to provide for Millie's care. There was no way to be certain when he might be able to send more.

A quick search of the saddlebags hadn't yielded much, but he'd pocketed a rusty dagger along with a small vial he could only conclude was the sleeping draught Jack had used to aid their escape from Greytower. Lancelot firmly believed in open combat rather than tricks, but he also preferred subterfuge over death if it came down to a choice between the two.

He'd been at another man's mercy once because he'd refused to think beyond the sword in his hand. It would not happen again.

Several days of travel by foot brought him to the next village, where he immediately found his way to the local tavern. He parted with a good portion of his pitifully small collection of coins in exchange for a tankard of mead, hoping for the information he sought.

His questions yielded nothing.

The second settlement resulted in a similar disappointment, immediately followed by a third and a fourth that proved fruitless. Weeks of travel, and his dogged efforts only rewarded him with blistered feet and empty pockets, followed by the disheartening realization that the hunger that gnawed at his belly, a feeling he knew all too well and despised more than any other, was soon to become his constant reality all over again.

The thought of starvation was unbearable, enough motivation to continue on his quest no matter how hopeless it seemed. He soon found it difficult to recall any purpose beyond that… not the girl he'd left behind or the obligation that had set him upon his current path. Everything else faded into the background, overpowered by the desperate need to fight for his own survival.

"Don't look much like a mercenary," the sullen woman in the next tavern observed rudely. "Don't look like much at all, if you ask me. What sort of paid fighter can't even afford a cup of ale?"

Lancelot stared longingly at the pitcher in her hand, fighting the temptation to beg for a sip. Just one taste... and if he were lucky, maybe even a crust of bread to go along with it? The craving for anything other than the roots, berries, and river water he'd survived on for weeks was maddening.

But he couldn't quite bring himself to do it, a decision that was made far easier as the barmaid scowled and told him, "If you ain't gonna pay, then get out."

"Now, now, there's no need for that," scolded a stout, silver haired man who was seated nearby. Lancelot turned to look at him, immediately noticing the fine quality of his clothing beneath the thick layer of dirt that seemed permanently embedded in the fabric.

"You gonna buy his drinks?" the woman snapped back. "If so , then cough up some coin. If not, I'll thank you to stay out of my business."

The man let out a bark of boisterous laughter. "Wench, if I stayed out of your business, you'd hardly have any business at all. This shithole isn't exactly booming with customers, in case you hadn't noticed."

Lancelot listened to the exchange, wondering whether it would be wiser to stay or leave, when the man spoke again.

"You!" he called, waving his tankard vaguely in Lancelot's direction. "Come here! Sit down and tell me your name. I'll buy you a drink."

Lancelot accepted gratefully, not caring who the man was or what he might want when a bowl of stew and a bit of bread was ordered on his behalf. All he knew was that it was the first chance he'd had to fill his belly in weeks, and there was no telling when he might have another.

"Fighter, eh?" the man said, raising a thick silver eyebrow. "If that's true, then why in the hell are you asking a barmaid where to find opportunities? Might as well ask a sheep herder to forge your weapons or a blacksmith to tailor your clothes. Don't make no sense."

Lancelot swallowed the last of his stew, then paused to clear his throat. "I've only been in one man's service and that... well, that came about in an unusual way. It just seemed that a tavern would be the best place to seek such information."

The man laughed. "Oh, it is! But you don't ask a wench. She don't know nothing and even if she did, she'd never tell you. Dangerous for that kind to talk too much, if you catch my meaning."

Lancelot suddenly remembered Nessie's insistence that she wasn't the type to ask questions, then felt foolish upon the realization that any woman in such a rough business would obviously have to be cautious for the sake of her own safety. It was no wonder they'd all stared at him as if he were a simpleton when he'd come around seeking information.

"Then whom do I speak with?" he inquired, humbled by his own ignorance.

"Bandits," the man said with a sly smile. "Drunkards and thieves. Walk into a tavern, look for the worst of the lot and start there."

He raised a skeptical eyebrow. "But..."

"You ain't looking for a seamstress to sew you pretty dresses, son," the man interrupted with a chuckle. "It's dirty work you're wanting and you'll have to mix with unsavory types to find it. But if that's beneath your standards..."

"Nothing's beneath my standards anymore," Lancelot said bluntly, not feeling even the slightest twinge of pain at the words. "I just need to fight."

The stranger broke into a huge grin. "That's what I was hoping you'd say. Well, let me give you your first opportunity, eh?"

Fighting for the first man earned Lancelot enough coin to buy a mail shirt and slightly better clothing for himself. Service to the second enabled him to send enough gold to tide Millie over for several weeks, and the third allowed him to purchase a rawboned old stallion that made travel significantly easier.

Opportunities came effortlessly after that, once he'd learned who to talk to and the right questions to ask. He rode from one nameless destination to another, putting all the strength he had into the brutal fights. Again and again, he emerged bruised and bloody, then holed up somewhere for several days to recover from his wounds.

For months, that hard, isolated way of living was all he knew, an existence he only found bearable by shutting down and focusing on what was required to ensure his survival. What was the safest route through dark, perilous forests? Which strategy would it take to leave his faceless opponent dead on the ground at his feet as quickly as possible?

Even when he lay alone in some unknown inn, body exhausted and aching from his most recent fight, he didn't have it in him to feel sorrow over his miserable fate, nor to dwell on emotions such as loneliness or despair. He didn't allow himself to feel much at all during those endless nights, other than a vague, tired determination to make it through the following day.

Living ceased to mean anything beyond drawing his next breath. Everything else was gone.

One chilly afternoon in late autumn, Lancelot's travels brought him to a large village within the kingdom of Mercia. He found his way to the local tavern, seated himself at a table in the corner and carefully surveyed the room, finally settling on a pair of ruffians who looked as if they'd rather rob a man blind than answer a question.

With a nod of satisfaction, he gestured to the barmaid and whispered his request. A few minutes later, they both fixed him with a suspicious glare as they accepted their free drinks, but offered little protest when he rose and joined them.

"What's this for?" asked the first man, scowling at him with a face full of blackened teeth.

Lancelot affected an innocent expression. "I only wanted to ask you a question. The ale seemed like a sensible way to show my gratitude in advance for your help."

Both men looked unnerved by the unexpected courtesies.

"Whatever it is, we didn't do it, we haven't seen it, and we don't know what happened to it," the second man growled, reaching up to scratch at his scraggly beard. "Does that answer your question?"

"Not exactly," Lancelot said with an understanding smile. "I merely wanted to ask if you were aware of any fighting opportunities nearby. I need to earn a little gold."

A predictable expression passed over their dirty faces, one he'd learned to expect after months of dealing with such men. It hadn't taken him long to figure out that the rough types never knew what to make of his quiet nature and courteous manners. They were always relieved to discover he was one of them after all, and the two sitting in front of him were no exception.

"Might," the first muttered. "Doubt you'll be wanting to go there though. Hengist's a nasty sort and that's an understatement. Doesn't help that he feeds friends and enemies alike to those beasts of his whenever he's wanting a bit of sport."

"Aye," the second agreed with a chuckle. "And that champion of his? Probably crush you like an ant if you got in a cage with him."

"Pays well though, if the rumors are true," the first man said, and that was all Lancelot needed to hear.

"Where might I find this... Hengist?"

The man with the scraggly beard raised a bushy eyebrow. "Two days' journey south of here. Big castle. Hard to miss."

"Thank you for all your help," he said dispassionately, rising to his feet and tossing a coin on the table. "Buy yourselves another drink."

I'm going to die.

For hours, there had been no other thought in Gwen's mind.

The realization had come upon her when their party had been attacked by bandits on what was meant to be a peaceful journey to visit Morgana's father's grave. She'd watched in horror as the Knights of Camelot who'd been sent along to ensure their protection had been brutally cut down, their lifeless corpses providing no buffer between herself and certain death.

Morgana had rallied against their captors, seeing an opportunity for escape and seizing it without hesitation. She hadn't seemed to think about the risk involved in undressing in front of such merciless men, or the fact that the temptation of the naked flesh she'd provided as a distraction could have just as easily led to a brutal violation.

Gwen had never admired her more than she had in that moment, yet every thrum of her pounding heart as they'd fled their attackers had seemed to shout the words, leaving no room for thought of escape or hope of rescue. She'd run by instinct alone, because it was the only thing to do... but the overwhelming fear within her told her it was a futile effort.

I'm going to die.

Then she'd fallen, rendered helpless by a cramp in her leg. She'd insisted that Morgana go on without her, and in that at least, there'd been a great deal of comfort. Perhaps there was a small chance she might make it out alive, even if it was too late for Gwen herself.

When the captors had decided on an alternate plan, it had almost been a relief to hear the man swear that she'd be killed if she refused. Perhaps because the threat confirmed that she was right to feel so frightened and helpless, and that it was no fault of her own that she could see little hope for her own survival?

And yet hope must have been within her somewhere, as she agreed to go along with the deception rather than lose her life. She wanted to live, even if she knew she was only prolonging the inevitable in agreeing to impersonate Morgana and be presented to the man named Hengist to be held for ransom. After all, who would pay large sums of gold in order to rescue a servant?

Nonetheless, she played along, maintaining her composure and affecting a haughty disposition that was a surprisingly accurate impression of quite a few members of the nobility, even if it bore little resemblance to Morgana herself. Hengist seemed entirely convinced that she was exactly who she claimed to be, and the lie bought her precious time.

Time... time for what? Gwen wondered as her arm was grabbed none too gently and she was escorted below to the cells. Time to imagine how they'd kill her when they knew the truth? Time to live out the rest of her life locked in a dungeon, frightened and alone, with no chance of escape?

It didn't matter. Hopeless situation or not, she couldn't bring herself to surrender to what felt like the inevitable. Even the realization that continuing with such a lie would probably infuriate Hengist and increase her suffering in the end wasn't enough for her to admit the truth.

She'd been in her cell for several hours when she heard a heavy pair of boots echoing through the stone corridor. There was a sharp clanging of metal, and the door swung open to reveal a filthy man who fixed her with a black toothed grin that made her shudder in disgust.

His beady eyes immediately dropped to her chest, leering at breasts that were far more exposed than they ever would've been in one of her own dresses. Gwen swallowed hard, resisting the urge to reach up and cover herself, even as her stomach churned with fear.

"How dare you look at me that way?" she demanded, feeling satisfied when her voice didn't tremble. "Don't you know who I am?"

The man chuckled carelessly, not troubling to avert his gaze. "Oh yes," he said in a voice that was far too suggestive for her liking. "You're our royal guest. And Hengist has ordered a fine banquet in your honor, along with the best entertainment he has to offer. Come."

Seeing little choice in the matter, Gwen followed him out of the cell and up the stairs, then down a corridor that opened into what she assumed must be the main hall of the castle, which was curiously dominated by what appeared to be a large cage. She cringed as the rough looking men who filled the room ceased their conversation, focusing all their attention on her.

Hengist was seated at a high table that was laden down with steaming platters and jugs of ale, grinning at her as she approached.

"Ah, the Lady Morgana has arrived!" he announced with a great deal of flourish. "Be seated and let me feast you as you deserve!"

Gwen reluctantly took the seat he offered, closing her eyes against a wave of nausea as a fly buzzed past her face and landed on a haunch of half cooked meat. It didn't matter that she hadn't eaten since early that morning – the idea of food was downright repulsive.

"What can I serve you, Lady Morgana?" Hengist questioned in a solicitous tone. "I'd recommend some of the boar. Just killed it this morning, and let me tell you what a fight that was! When I shoved my spear between her eyes, she..."

"I'm not hungry," she interrupted hastily, not wanting to imagine what he'd been about to say. "Nor am I interested in hearing your disgusting stories. I'll just sit here, thank you."

The crowd of men roared with laughter, and for a moment, she was afraid Hengist might be embarrassed or even angered by her haughty reaction. Instead, there was a distinct twinkle of amusement in his eyes.

"Silence!" he bellowed. "Our royal guest, Lady Morgana, has grown bored! She needs... entertaining."

Suddenly, Gwen realized what the cage was for. A large, brutal looking man with a bald head and a thickly muscled chest burst out of the gate inside, feinting and growling menacingly at the men who cheered enthusiastically at him through the iron bars.

"Bring on the challenger!" Hengist called gleefully, and upon his words, another man entered the cage.

It can't be... Gwen gasped in disbelief. She stared. Her mouth fell open and her stomach tied in knots. It can't be him. It must be another man. A man with his face, his body, a man who moves just the way I remember. But it can't be him.

And then those warm brown eyes fell upon her, hauntingly familiar eyes that mirrored the emotion that must've been reflected in her own stunned gaze. In that moment, her mind spoke a truth her heart had known from the second he'd entered the room.


Chapter Text

Chapter 41: Awakening

Of all the savage blows Lancelot had received during countless fights, he'd never been struck half as hard as he was by the sheer force of laying his eyes on Gwen's face again.

At first he thought it must be some trick of the imagination, a lovely image conjured up to bring comfort to a mind that had known nothing but harshness and brutality for far too long. Then in the span of a heartbeat, he realized it wasn't a dream at all; logical thought shut down, blindsided by an onslaught of emotion that threatened to bring him to his knees.


She was there... and she was real. His body knew it instinctively, could feel the truth of her presence in the way his skin seemed to come alive under the power of her disbelieving stare. Their eyes met, and within that soft gaze that had haunted his dreams for what seemed like a lifetime, he saw shocked recognition, swiftly followed by confusion and fear.

It was the fear that brought him back to his senses somewhat. He struggled for composure, even as a low, menacing voice returned him to a reality where there were more pressing matters at hand.

"Only one of you will emerge from the cage alive," Hengist growled, clearly relishing the taste of the threat in his mouth. "Do you accept the challenge?"

As if there was a choice, Lancelot thought vaguely as he bowed to indicate his assent. As if I wouldn't be killed for sport if I refused.

Without hesitation, his opponent struck and then the fight was upon him. He parried the flurry of brutal blows by instinct alone, even as his mind begged for answers to questions that jarred him more forcefully than the hulking man in front of him could ever hope to do.

What is she doing in a place like this?

He ducked swiftly, managing to avoid a swing that would have taken his head clean off his shoulders. The other man grunted and growled, striking faster and harder, building the intensity of the fight as Lancelot proved to be a challenge he hadn't expected.

What could Hengist possibly want with her?

The two swords clashed in a struggle for dominance; Lancelot strained against his opponent's brute strength, muscles screaming in protest as the other man pushed against him harder and harder and... he forced the other blade down with a gasp of relief.

If any harm comes to her, I will kill him by inches. I swear upon my life, I will.

Thirsty for blood, the merciless crowd roared out their approval at the relentless succession of brutal blows Hengist's champion rained down upon Lancelot, driving him backward as he continued to block and defend.

Only a little longer, he reassured himself as he struggled in vain to focus all his attention on combat. He'll begin to tire soon, and then I'll finish him.

Right on the heels of that thought, he caught a glimpse of Gwen out of the corner of his eye, just as Hengist leaned over and whispered something in her ear. She shrank back, repulsed by the crude words he must have spoken, and Lancelot's heart filled with hot, blinding rage. Suddenly, the fight at hand was the last thing on his mind.

If he puts his hands on her, damn him, I swear I'll...

He grunted in pain as a sharp elbow drove into his back, a vicious blow that sent him reeling into the bars of the cage with a bone jarring crash.

No, I need to focus. He swerved to the side, narrowly missing a swing that was clearly intended to split his skull. I cannot be defeated. I will not leave her here at the mercy of these animals.

And they were animals, beastly creatures who deserved far worse than the scorn he'd just glimpsed on Gwen's face. Somehow, during all the months he'd spent in the company of such vile men, he'd forgotten what they truly were. But in that moment, he saw with absolute clarity how they must appear to her – their merciless nature, their crudeness, their lust for violence and suffering.

It had taken Gwen's eyes, not his own, to finally show him the truth.

Suddenly, he had the sickening realization that to her, he must seem no different than the detestable bandits, the criminals and murderers who filled the room. What could she possibly see that would set him apart from terrible men like Hengist himself, who'd so rightfully earned her contempt?

Good lord, what have I allowed myself to become?

The thought filled him with rage, and he suddenly found himself fighting with a passion he hadn't felt in years. He went on the offensive, and every deafening crash of his sword seemed to cry out in helpless fury against the hardships that had befallen him in the years since he'd left Camelot, rebelling against all the dishonorable things they'd driven him to do despite his best intentions.

When he lashed out, it wasn't the face of his opponent he saw, but that of a hopeful young man who'd only ever wanted to do right in the world. He struck again and again, his blows harder and more relentless, as he saw the innocent joy in that youthful face melt away, buried beneath an avalanche of shattered dreams and crushing disappointment.

The visage became gaunt with starvation, dominated by haunting eyes that spoke of the soul deep loneliness that had become so much a part of who he was that he couldn't recall the last time he'd even been consciously aware of his own isolation. The image of his features changed with time, showing him a succession of desperation, fear, sadness and finally, a sort of hopeless resignation.

All his long suppressed emotions finally vented themselves in an onslaught of physical force that could not be contained, and being on the receiving end of such intensity was too much for the other man to withstand for long. One final assault and he was down, sprawled helplessly on his back in the face of Lancelot's unexpected fury.

In that moment, he barely noticed the familiar combination of terror and acceptance in the defeated champion's eyes. With his sword poised for the death blow, he couldn't help another glance at Gwen.

When his eyes met hers, still so innocent, open and honest, despite the fear he recognized in their depths, his anger melted away as swiftly as it had come. He withdrew his sword, sparing the man's life, despite the fact that he'd finished dozens just like him without a second thought.

No, I will not do it… not in front of her. Hengist can have me killed if he likes. I will not do it.

Instantly relieved by the decision, he suddenly realized that the feeling went deeper than his reluctance to expose Gwen to such brutality. He felt an echo within himself, a voice which spoke to him of mercy, of justice and of honor, recalling all the beliefs he'd had to push aside for the sake of survival. They made themselves known only as a faint whisper, not as the thunderous shout they'd once been. But in that moment, he knew they were still a part of him somewhere deep inside.

He emerged from the cage and went to stand before Hengist, far more fearful of the realization dawning in Gwen's eyes as he received his payment than he was of imminent death.

"What is your name?" Hengist questioned in a mild voice.

He spared the man little more than a glance before he fixed his eyes on her again, frantically searching her expression for some answer to his numerous questions. The look on her face was guarded, suspicious, showing him nothing of what she might be feeling or how she'd come to be in such a wretched place. It was maddening.

Maddening... and probably necessary for her own safety, whether she realized it or not.

"My name is Lancelot," he replied automatically.

"You have proven yourself to be a skillful warrior," Hengist said with an approving nod. "I believe you may have even impressed our royal guest… Lady Morgana."

Lady Morgana? A dozen possibilities buzzed through his mind, none of which seemed even remotely plausible. With a great deal of effort, he pushed them all away, affecting what he hoped was a bland expression as he gave Gwen a respectful bow.

"My lady."

I'm not a knight, yet, my lady, a faint voice echoed in his mind, carrying him back to a time of beauty and innocence and hopeful dreams.

And I'm not a lady, the memory of her whispered back to him, accompanied by a shy giggle that still set his heart aflutter after what seemed like a lifetime since he'd heard it from her lips.

"Next time you fight, do not expect any mercy," Hengist growled, and Lancelot hated him for bringing him back to the present reality. "Release the Wilddeoren!"

The gate inside the cage opened, and what appeared to be a giant rat emerged, baring teeth that must have been as long as a man's forearm, The hideous creature sniffed the air, then let out a series of piercing shrieks that made Lancelot's blood run cold. As the crowd jeered their encouragement, the defeated champion struggled in vain to crawl away from its gaping jaws, screaming first in terror and then in agony as the beast tore into his flesh.

Lancelot cringed in disgust, turning his head away from the brutal scene.

Gwen... his eyes fell upon her again, relieved to find that her gaze was averted as well. She was staring at him instead, suspicious, distrustful, and he could read the question in her sudden glare as clearly as if it had been spoken aloud. What was he doing there, working for a man who was capable of such atrocities?

"I believe we've all had had enough entertainment for tonight," Hengist announced cheerfully. "It's late, and I have a whore with the biggest tits you ever saw waiting in my chamber. Escort Lady Morgana back to her cell." He suddenly paused, giving Gwen a suggestive leer. "Unless, of course, she'd like to accompany me upstairs. Plenty of room for three in my bed."

She recoiled from his proffered hand, shaking her head vehemently with an expression of panicked revulsion. Helpless rage boiled up inside Lancelot and his fists clenched, trembling with effort as he resisted the urge to grab Hengist and smash his face into the nearest wall. How dare he suggest such a vile thing? Far worse, what if Gwen's refusal wasn't enough to hold him at bay?

What would Lancelot do if he tried to drag her upstairs and have his way with her? He knew he couldn't kill him, though that was a reaction that would come to him as naturally as drawing his next breath. No, such an act would bring the swarm of two, perhaps three dozen men that filled the room down upon him. Then he'd surely die, leaving Gwen at the mercy of them all.

It was sickening to realize that the same man Gwen needed to be protected from was also the only buffer that was shielding her from a far worse fate.

Rather than forcing the issue, however, Hengist roared with laughter and rose to his feet, treating her to an exaggerated, mocking bow. "Very well, Lady Morgana. If it's the company of the rats in the dungeon you prefer, who am I to deny such an honored guest?"

Anger suddenly flared in Gwen's dark eyes, an emotion Lancelot had never seen there before. Say nothing, his own stare silently begged her as she glanced his way. Do not provoke him while I'm powerless to protect you. Please, say nothing.

He could only show so much without arousing suspicion, but she seemed to understand his meaning nonetheless. Giving a slight nod, she pressed her lips tightly together and meekly submitted when two guards came to lead her away. He stood by helplessly, terrified to let her out of his sight, even as he knew pretended indifference to be the only protection he could offer her for the time being.

Before he knew it, she was gone, a trail of delicate purple silk having followed her out of the room.

Gwen sank down on the narrow bed in her cell, relieved her trembling legs had managed to hold her upright throughout the long walk to the dungeons. Taking a deep breath, she stared at the drab, gray walls, struggling to make sense of the wildly conflicting emotions that were raging inside her.

Lancelot... Lancelot, living, breathing and real, so much more powerful than the faint whisper of memory which had long ago ceased to have any solid place in the reality of her existence. He'd lingered in her mind as pieces of a dream, flashes of longing looks and of passionate kisses on a warm summer night. Just a dream... nothing more.

The real Lancelot had been lost her forever. She'd  forced herself to accept that when the months, and then well over a year had passed without word from him. Yes, she'd had to let go for her own sake, left behind for so long without any indication that the feelings between them had ever even real outside of her own mind.

Had she truly put him behind her?

Two months ago, two weeks ago, even two hours ago, the answer to that question would have been a definite yes. But that had been before he'd come back into her life without warning, awakening feelings that had only ever existed for him.

And yet she'd swallowed her emotions, finding some sense of resolve in the reminder that the man before her was not the boy she'd known back in Camelot. If he were, how could he possibly stand to be in the service of someone as despicable as Hengist? Why would he be working in such a wretched place, fighting with no other purpose beyond his own profit?

Gwen had heard many things about mercenary fighters, and none of them had ever been good. They were the lowest form of humanity; men who fought without a shred of honor or dignity, happy to end life after life just to line their own pockets with gold.

How could Lancelot... had he really changed so much? Had he never been the man she'd believed him to be to begin with? Or was there some other reason behind the shameful life he now lived?

I mustn't come to any conclusions without allowing him to speak for himself, she decided, finding that giving him the benefit of the doubt brought her a great deal of relief. Whatever the reason might be for what he was doing, she could still see goodness in him. It had been plain on his face when he'd chosen to spare his opponent, and then when he'd looked at her, for all that he'd tried to appear as if he were unaffected by her presence. If he'd had no honor left, he wouldn't have...

"Gwen!" whispered a familiar voice from a small opening above.

Despite herself, her heart fluttered with giddy anticipation as she rose to her feet.

Chapter Text

Chapter 42: A Glimpse of Hope

"Lancelot?" Gwen murmured breathlessly as she stared at the familiar face through the grated window. As soon as his gentle brown eyes met hers, still full of the kindness and honesty she remembered so well, she knew her worst suspicions couldn't possibly be true.

His warm smile was much more comforting than the stoic facade he'd shown earlier, making her glad it was no longer necessary for either of them to pretend they were strangers. Her heart beat a little faster when she noticed the tenderness in his gaze – a soft, searching look, almost as if he was starved for the sight of her.

Don't jump to conclusions, she reminded herself, even though that did nothing to suppress the rush of excitement that came with finally being face to face with him again.

"I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it was you," he said softly.

"I thought my mind was deceiving me," she replied, marveling anew at whatever twist of fate had led to them finding each other in such an unlikely place.

"Why does Hengist think you're Lady Morgana?" he asked curiously, pulling her back to the dismal reality of her circumstances. Her fears had been reduced to a low buzz in the back of her mind up until then, a mere whisper compared with the storm of emotion that had been evoked by his sudden reappearance in her life.

"He believes he's holding Morgana to ransom," she explained quietly, unable to disguise the despair in her voice as she spoke. "When no ransom is paid, he'll realize the truth and then he'll throw me to those beasts."

A grotesque image flashed through her mind as she remembered the brief, yet sickening glimpse she'd had of the champion's mutilated body. For a terrifying moment, she imagined her flesh mangled as his had been, the same bone chilling screams of agony coming from her own lips. Panic rose inside her, until Lancelot's next words somehow managed to silence the dreadful thought.

"I will not allow that to happen."

Later, she'd remember he was only one man in a fortress filled with countless enemies. Then she'd be forced to admit to herself that no matter how much conviction had been in his eyes, there'd be little he could do to rescue her from Hengist's wrath once the truth of her identity was discovered.

For now, however, she desperately wanted to believe him, and so she did.

"What are you doing here? Are you one of Hengist's men?"


"What became of you after you left Camelot?"

He met her gaze with eyes full of tired resignation."There are few opportunities for men like me, so I've been earning a living the only way I know... with a sword in my hand. It seems it is my destiny to entertain men like Hengist."

There was no need to mention that he'd suffered a great deal of hardship since the last time she'd seen him. It was there on his face – disillusionment, loneliness, despair, along with physical scars that had never marred his features before. More than that was a deep sense of shame over what he'd been reduced to, making her heart ache upon the realization of how much his spirit had been damaged by the harshness of life.

"I don't believe that of you," she said gently. "You were so full of hope."

Something flickered in his eyes before they grew dull again. "I was wrong. The world is not like that."

She reached through the grate to touch his hand, desperate to offer some kind of reassurance. "I still see the hope in you. I do not accept it is gone."

And then she was completely disarmed as he responded with a warm smile, sliding his fingers over hers in a gentle caress. "I have thought of you often. Have you thought of me at all?"

That single touch was all it took to overwhelm her, bringing emotions to life that had long since faded into some distant dream. The intensity of his gaze, the sound of his voice, even the smell of his skin were the same, affecting her just as powerfully as they had years before. How had she ever managed to put the memory of those feelings aside?

"I thought I would never see you again," she responded, though it was more of an attempt to bring some sense to her inner turmoil than a reply to his question.

Any response he might have offered was cut short by the clanging of metal at the door of her cell.

"Someone's coming!" she whispered urgently.

"No matter what it takes, I will find a way to get you out of here." he promised her, eyes shining with determination as he gave her a reassuring smile. "I will."

Lancelot returned to the sleeping quarters he'd been given, taking no notice of the narrow bed, battered furniture or even the pair of rats that were rustling around in a bit of dirty straw in the corner. He paced restlessly, one hand gripping the hilt of his sword until his knuckles turned white.

I have to get her out of here, was the only coherent thought his overwrought mind managed to produce. I have to get her out of here.

The phrase echoed over and over in his head, with each repetition summoning up a different, horrifying image to accompany the words. He fretted helplessly, nearly driving himself mad as he thought of Hengist, the guards, the countless bandits and criminals who filled the fortress, all of which were an imminent threat to Gwen's safety.

Was she even now being subjected to some cruel man's violations down in the dungeon? Could that be why her cell door had been unlocked... so that some stranger might intrude and force himself on her? Had Lancelot walked away and allowed that to happen?

Before he consciously realized what he was doing, he was out the door again, creeping along the empty corridor to reach the grate where she'd appeared to him before. All the while, he was tormented by images of dirty hands ripping away her gown, rough fingers bruising tender flesh... followed by visuals so awful he began to feel physically ill.

When he arrived at his destination, he sank down into a crouch and peered into her cell. His eyes met nothing but darkness.

"Gwen?" he whispered softly.

There was no response.

Was she sleeping... or had she been dragged upstairs to be used by Hengist or one of his friends? Or worse, was he even now summoning those hideous beasts of his to tear her to pieces, having somehow discovered the truth of her identity? Would Lancelot only become aware of this through distant screams of agony as they reverberated throughout the castle, helpless to reach her until it was far too late?

No, he couldn't let that happen. Not to Gwen, who'd looked at him with so much faith in her eyes when he'd promised his protection. No, he couldn't fail her. The rest of the world could burn and he'd watch it fall, but he couldn't allow her to die. No, there had to be another way.

"Gwen!" he whispered again, desperately hoping for a response.

"You there!" called a low, gravelly voice from behind. "What do you think you're doing?"

Think, he told himself frantically. 

Casually, he rose to his feet, trying to hide his unease behind a stoic face. "I..."

Damn you, Lancelot, think!

"I've never seen a real lady up close before," he finally said with a sheepish grin, turning to meet a pair of beady, suspicious eyes. "I was just curious, that's all."

The man suddenly chuckled, reaching up to brush a fringe of dirty black hair out of his eyes. "Curious, you say? That's a polite way of putting it. Can't say as I blame you for trying your luck though. Isn't a man here who wouldn't stick it to that bitch until she begged for mercy."

Lancelot's fingers twitched, fighting the urge to draw his sword and kill the man for daring to speak of Gwen in such a shameful way.

"Unfortunately, Hengist has given orders that the lady is not to be molested. More valuable to him if she remains unharmed, you see. He stands to make a hefty sum of gold out of this, and that king might not be wanting to pay for damaged goods."

Relieved, Lancelot nodded.

"Anyway, you should be getting back upstairs now," the man said, narrowing his eyes as if he'd just recalled his orders to guard the prisoner. "That is, unless you fancy the idea of being a Wilddeoren's breakfast. Catch you down here again and that's exactly where you'll end up."

The threat had no effect on Lancelot, who just shrugged and walked away. All that mattered was that Gwen was safe… at least as long as Hengist believed her to be a valuable captive. It wasn't much, but perhaps it would buy him enough time to come up with a plan for her rescue. His lone sword against dozens of enemies seemed like hopeless odds, but there had to be some way to free her... there had to be.

"I still see the hope in you," she'd said, her eyes shining with that sweet innocence that had somehow remained untouched during the years they'd spent apart.

He'd known it was true in the instant she'd said it, a feeling that had only grown stronger as the words had repeated themselves in his mind. Whatever he'd lost in himself – faith, hope, courage, and honor – still existed in his feelings for her. He could never truly give up as long as she lived and breathed, not while he still had the strength to offer her protection when she needed it most.

That was the hope she'd seen in his eyes, though she'd probably never realize it had all been for her. She was the only thing that mattered to him anymore; he'd gladly do whatever it took to see that she escaped this awful place.

What would come after her rescue was another matter entirely; there was no denying that he'd ultimately be losing her all over again. By some strange twist of fate, he'd found her in a situation where she had no one else to depend on... but that would mean nothing if he succeeded in getting her out of here. He'd see her safely home to Camelot, then return to a dismal reality where he had no place in her world anymore.

But no, it was selfish to dwell on that. As long as she was happy, it shouldn't matter how deeply he still loved her or that she'd grown even more beautiful during the time they'd spent apart. Nor should it make a difference that he couldn't be near her without wanting to take her in his arms, or that the bars between them had made him feel just as imprisoned as she was because they hadn't allowed him to do so.

All of that was irrelevant, because what had once existed between them was gone. Her heart was lost to him now, painfully obvious in the apologetic way she'd told him she'd thought she'd never see him again.

It didn't matter... as long as she was happy.

He wanted to believe that, wished he could without his own needs rising to torment him. He didn't want to think about how much it would hurt to leave everything he loved all over again, fearing it would destroy him to return to the desolate life of meaningless killing he so despised.

But there was no denying the pain that came from wanting so many things he couldn't have. For good or ill, he no longer had the ability to escape into the numb resignation that had been the dominant force in his life for as long as he could remember. He'd lost it in the moment he'd laid eyes on Gwen again… and somehow, he knew she'd closed the door on that part of himself forever.

How he would cope with the aftermath, he did not know.

Chapter Text

Chapter 43: A Reason to Live


Her lips curved into a smile as Lancelot's voice spoke to her from within a dream. Promising warmth and safety, the comforting sound wrapped around her like a blanket as she slept, just as the thick velvet cloak she was huddled beneath sheltered her from the chill night air.

She saw him standing in front of her then, giddy, nervous and so endearingly awkward as she grinned up at him and told him her name for the first time.

"Short for Guinevere," she clarified, waiting to hear the response she'd known by heart since the moment it had been spoken.


No, that isn't it, she thought in confusion as she stirred restlessly in her sleep. He's supposed to say "Well then, thank you, Guinevere." He always sounded happy when he spoke the words, never uncertain and fearful. What was there to be afraid of?

As her unconscious mind struggled to make sense of the unexpected panic in Lancelot's voice, the dream shifted. He was preparing to ride out to face the Griffin, a monstrous creature that had already resisted attacks from countless knights, leaving nothing but their bloody remains in its wake.

Yet even with the threat of almost certain death hanging over his head, she'd seen only bravery and conviction in his eyes, never even a trace of fear. She might have been terrified, but he'd been steady, calm, and reassuring when he'd spoken his farewells.

No, the Lancelot she'd known had never seemed frightened in her presence.

So why did he sound that way now?


Everything else was a low, indistinguishable hum in Gwen's ears, but one word called out to her like a determined shout. Wilddeoren.

"Release the Wilddeoren!" bellowed an unfamiliar voice, and the blackness that had overtaken her sleeping mind opened onto a scene she didn't recognize. She was standing beside a cage, a terrible structure built of cold iron that contained a single captive. Her hands slid between the bars, yearning to offer comfort to the man with the sad, dark eyes, but he was far beyond her reach.

She whimpered his name, but he didn't seem to hear her. His eyes were focused on the monstrous beast that was bearing down on him, an enormous rat like creature with jagged teeth that looked as if they could easily tear a man in half. She rattled the bars and screamed, pleading with him to move, but her warnings were useless. He sat motionless, his eyes full of hopeless resignation, not even crying out in pain as the hideous beast tore into his flesh.

Coming awake with a sharp gasp, she pressed a hand to her swiftly beating heart as she trembled in the darkness. She sat up and gathered Morgana's warm velvet cloak around herself, struggling to bring some sense to the overwhelming terror in her mind.

It was only a dream, Gwen, she reminded herself again and again. Just a dream.

For hours, she sat quietly in her cell and waited for dawn, affecting a stoic expression that showed nothing of her inner turmoil. She reassured herself that Lancelot was safe, probably sleeping at such an early hour; eventually, the thought began to calm her. It was impossible to push the images of her nightmare aside, however, as she considered the reality of the coming day.

It was chilling to realize that the two scenarios probably wouldn't be much different. After all, how much longer could it be before Hengist figured out the truth and sentenced her to the very same death she'd seen in her dream?

Was there any hope of escaping her fate?

If Morgana reached Camelot safely, no doubt she'd do everything in her power to convince Uther to help. Arthur would plead her case as well, but would any of their efforts make a difference? The king was a stubborn man who cared nothing about the lives of servants. She'd seen proof of his heartlessness too many times to put any faith in his sense of justice or mercy.

Gwen couldn't help feeling a little ashamed as she realized she'd barely even thought of Arthur since she'd reached Hengist's fortress. Guilt suddenly overwhelmed her as she pictured his eyes, remembering how soft and vulnerable they'd been as he'd watched her ride away from Camelot.

She'd grown to like the way he looked at her, even longing for it when he wasn't around. It felt good to be noticed and admired by someone as handsome as Arthur, and she knew she'd be lying to herself to deny the attraction she'd begun to feel for him in return.

But it was nothing like the rush of emotion she'd felt when she'd seen Lancelot again. How could anyone compare a slight breeze with a raging tempest?

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps out in the corridor, followed by a sharp jingling of keys at the cell door. She began to panic, her empty stomach twisting in knots as she wondered if she was about to meet her end. Had Hengist somehow learned the truth of her identity? Was she only minutes away from being dragged upstairs to be fed to one of his dreadful Wilddeoren?

No, not yet, pleaded a helpless, frightened voice inside her head, although she refused to show any fear when she rose to face her captor. No, please... just a little more time.

"I've not yet received word from Uther that he intends to pay your ransom," Hengist said in a low, suspicious voice that made her tremble. "I was informed that the king was extremely fond of his ward. Are you not surprised he's content to leave you here to die?"

Think of Morgana. 

Morgana would never let this man intimidate her. She'd look him dead in the eye, not hesitating to let him know exactly what she thought of him. She'd deny him the satisfaction of seeing her fear, even if it meant her own death.

"How can I know the king's mind when I'm locked in this stinking cell?" Gwen spat coldly, glaring at Hengist like he was dirt beneath her feet.

He stepped closer with a dangerous gleam in his eye, the stench of his unwashed body making her stomach churn with nausea. "If I don't hear from Uther by dawn tomorrow, this stinking cell will be the last place you ever see."

He slammed the door with a deafening crash, leaving the cell even more abruptly than he'd come. The moment he was gone, she sank down on the bed, feeling the strength go out of her legs as her facade of haughty indifference was replaced by helpless fear.

There's little hope that anyone in Camelot will be able to reach me before it's too late, she thought despairingly. All I have now is Lancelot... but what can he possibly do?

During the cage fight, he'd proven himself to be incredibly skilled with a sword, having surpassed even the considerable abilities that had earned him his former knighthood. But talented or not, what man could hope to succeed against enemies who must outnumber him by fifty to one?

And yet he'd do everything in his power to help her, no matter how impossible the odds might seem. Yes, she would've known that in her heart, even if she hadn't seen the determination in his eyes or heard the conviction in his voice. Despite the unfortunate circumstances he'd fallen into, Lancelot had always been a knight in his heart, born to defend a just cause to his dying breath.

Gwen stared at the walls of her cell, struggling to reconcile the conflicting emotions of joy and terror in her mind. It was cruel injustice – finding him again despite all odds, just as her life was doomed to meet a tragic end. She might die without ever knowing what could have been, and for that reason more than any other, she hated Hengist.

"I have thought of you often," she heard him murmur softly, a memory that sent a pleasant shiver down her spine. "Have you thought of me at all?"

Yes, she responded to herself without hesitation, surprised at how easy it was to admit her feelings after fighting to deny them for so long. He'd never been far from her thoughts, even when she'd tried to convince herself he was gone from her life forever. Her feelings for him had always been there, no matter how hard she'd tried to deny them.

There were so many things left unsaid, so much she desperately wanted to know. The tenderness she'd seen in Lancelot's eyes made it clear he still cared for her, but what did that mean? If they somehow managed to escape with their lives, what would happen then? Would he return to Camelot with her?

She tried to remind herself not to get her hopes up, only to realize that it was impossible to resign herself to her supposed fate. In the end, it didn't matter how hopeless the situation seemed or how terribly it might end. All the feelings that had been reawakened inside her were strong, so much stronger than fear and despair.

I won't lose faith, she silently promised, realizing she was making the vow to both herself and Lancelot. As long as there's a chance, I won't give up.

Lancelot roamed the corridors, desperate for an opportunity to check on Gwen. The hours dragged by and his patience wore thin, driven half mad with worry before his restless vigil had even started. Was she all right? Was she safe? Had she begun to lose all hope, or did she trust in his promise to help her escape?

All the while, he observed his surroundings, taking note of any small detail that could possibly aid him in his quest to rescue her. He watched the comings and goings of the guards, tried to memorize any route that might lead out of the castle... and slowly, a plan began to form in his mind.

Mealtimes seemed to be the most ideal chance he'd have to execute an escape. Most of the inhabitants gathered in the main hall to eat, leaving only a small handful of men to guard the rest of the fortress. It had been true the previous night, which was how he'd managed to speak with Gwen without getting caught. He'd noticed it again that morning, though his attempt to reach her had been interrupted when Hengist himself had chosen to visit the dungeon.

He'd listened from the other side of the grate, fear overcoming his fury as he'd picked up on the suspicion in the hated man's voice. The words themselves had been too low to hear, but one thing was certain – they were swiftly running out of time.

Finally, the small groups of men who loitered about the halls began to drift away as the scent of roasting meat filled the air. Lancelot's stomach twisted and churned, not with the hunger he'd forgotten how to feel, but with restless anticipation. 

Only a few more minutes now...

Once the corridors were empty, he visited an opening in the floor that he'd discovered would allow him to see down into the dungeons below. Only two guards remained, talking and laughing amongst themselves as one casually stirred a cooking pot. He smiled grimly to himself as the last part of his plan settled firmly into place.

Just give me a little longer, he silently pleaded, his hands shaking as he approached the familiar grate and knelt down to peer inside. A few more hours, that's all I ask.

"Gwen," he whispered softly.

For several agonizing seconds, there was no response. His eyes anxiously searched the cell beneath him, unable to see anything more than half of a deserted room and an empty bed. No, don't let it be too late. Please...


Suddenly, she was there, alive and unharmed on the other side of the bars and Lancelot closed his eyes, quite certain he'd never felt so relieved in his life. "I was terrified I might find your cell empty," he confessed as he remembered how to breathe again.

"There's been no word from Uther," she told him in a small, frightened voice. "I fear Hengist is growing suspicious."

"You must keep up the pretense. I will not allow you to die here."

"What about you?" she asked him softly.

Images flashed through Lancelot's mind, recalling what it was like to fight for no cause other than his own survival. He remembered the deep loneliness that had plagued him, followed by the terrible resignation that had left him unable to feel at all. He'd been dead inside until the sight of Gwen's face had brought him back to life. Finding her had given him a sense of purpose again, but it could only be a temporary relief.

"I have little to live for," he said honestly.

"Do not say that!"

Sweet Gwen, who never seemed to lose faith in him. How could he make her understand how little it mattered whether or not he survived beyond their escape? Without love, without purpose or an honorable cause to fight for, he was a stranger to himself. What would be left when everything he cared about was lost to him forever?

"It's the truth," he said aloud, unable to hide the defeat in his voice. "For all my words, for all that I believed, I have come to nothing."

She reached through the grate to touch his hand, soft fingers clutching his own. "You are everything that is right with this world!" Her eyes filled with tears and suddenly, he could read the emotions on her face as clearly as if they'd been written in ink.

Tenderness, longing... love.

She loved him. Despite all the years they'd spent apart or what he might've been reduced to during that time, she still felt all the things he'd never stopped feeling for her. It didn't seem possible, and yet there it was, reflected back at him from a pair of vulnerable eyes that remained the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

"I didn't know you felt that way," he murmured, wishing it was possible to take her in his arms. Unfortunately, that was out of the question for the time being, so he settled for caressing her fingers instead.

Her voice was soft and slightly breathless when she said, "I didn't know I could feel this way about someone."

"Then you have given me a reason to live," he responded with a smile, though as she reacted to his words with a joyful little laugh, it was suddenly difficult to remember why he'd ever lost faith to begin with.

The sound of distant footfalls in the corridor brought him back to the reality of their current situation. "Be ready," he whispered softly, as he reluctantly released her fingers and prepared to make a hasty departure. "I will come for you before nightfall."

Chapter Text

Chapter 44: The Cost of Freedom

"Then you have given me a reason to live."

Lancelot's words echoed in Gwen's mind as she waited quietly in the drab, gray dungeon cell, which no longer seemed dismal at all through her eyes. The dirty straw and rat droppings that littered the floor might as well have been flowers beneath her feet to reflect how beautiful the world appeared to her in that moment.

Breathlessly, she'd watched the realization dawn in his incredulous eyes, her heart melting when he'd given her a radiant smile that had erased all his previous despair. She'd loved the way the emotions had played across his features – disbelief turning into hope, swiftly followed by tenderness and joy. He'd made it abundantly clear that he loved her in return, and that simple truth made the future shine more brightly than the sun.

"I will come for you before nightfall."

The certainty in his voice had left no room for doubt – he'd be at her side in a few short hours, and they'd leave this awful place together. After that...

She smiled to herself as she imagined their journey home to Camelot. She'd take him to Gaius's chamber first, she decided, chuckling as she pictured the surprise on Merlin's face when he realized who was waiting to greet him on the other side of the door. How happy he'd be to have his friend back at long last!

Where will he live? she wondered eagerly. Gaius and Merlin would probably be glad to have him as a guest again, but Lancelot wouldn't want to impose on them for long. No, what he was need was a permanent home.

Suddenly, she blushed as she thought of the most obvious solution – asking him to move in with her. Perhaps it wouldn't be entirely proper, but it made perfect sense. She lived alone now and besides, Arthur himself had stayed in her home. If the Prince of Camelot could forgo concerns over appearance where necessary, then surely it wouldn't be unreasonable for Lancelot to do the same.

Her blissful mood faded somewhat as she remembered the way Arthur had kissed her while he'd been her guest. How would Lancelot feel if he knew? Should she even tell him? No, it had been nothing. There was no point in giving him cause to worry where there was no reason for it.

She didn't want to hurt Arthur… but there'd been no future in his attraction to her anyway. Surely he understood that already; maybe he'd even be happy for her once he'd had a little time to get used to the idea.

With that thought, she smiled again, quite certain that everything would work out for the best.

"What are you so happy about?" a guard growled in a mocking voice as he burst into the cell without ceremony. "Enjoying your fine accommodations, are you? Well, sorry to disappoint you, your highness, but Hengist is expecting you in the main hall. Brun! Grab her other arm!"

Before Gwen knew what was happening, she was being dragged up the stairs and through the corridors, her gentle musings crushed by the reality of stark terror. The guards handled her roughly, brutal fingers digging into her flesh so hard she was sure her arms would be covered in bruises the following day... if she even managed to live that long.

He knows, her heart seemed to pound out with its frantic thudding. Hengist knows.

She wanted to scream, to fight back, to put up some kind of resistance, but she knew it would be a futile effort as she was pushed into the cage to face her captor's mercy. The bars slid into place behind her, and then she knew her time had run out.

"Morgana," Hengist muttered in a low, menacing voice, before turning to face her with pitiless eyes. "Morgana! I keep asking myself, 'Why does Uther not pay the ransom?' He's a rich man. Why would he leave his beloved ward to suffer a slow and terrible death?"

He approached with slow, deliberate steps, reminding her of some fearsome predator who might prolong the final moments before it leapt forward to tear into its prey. It was a terrible connection to make under the circumstances, and suddenly, she was sure she could sense the Wilddeoren snuffling in anticipation from behind the gate.

"I don't know," she responded helplessly, cringing in terror as her captor lunged forward to grip her arm in a meaty fist. She tried to back away, only to find herself pinned against the cold iron bars behind her. "Please," she begged in a tiny voice, too frightened to speak beyond a single, desperate word. "Please..."

The foul stench of his unwashed body overwhelmed her as he leaned closer; she turned her head away both in fear and disgust. Her stomach churned with nausea and she swallowed hard, ignoring the urge to be sick right then and there. Retching on the man's boots wasn't likely to increase her chance of survival.

"It must be very upsetting to know that Uther has abandoned you," he said cruelly, gripping her hand so hard she feared her bones might break beneath the pressure. "It seems no one in the world cares for you."

"I don't know why he doesn't pay. Please, I don't know!"

"Take her to her cell," he commanded shortly.

Gwen nearly sobbed with relief as the guards stepped forward to drag her away, but any hope for respite was quickly smashed to bits when another order reached her ears on her way out of the room.

"Bring Kendrick to me. Perhaps he can tell me why the Lady Morgana has the hands of a serving girl."

The trip back down to the dungeons was a harrowing ordeal, as she quickly realized she could no longer rely upon the scant protection her noble status had offered. The first guard left her with nothing more than a few crude comments and a suggestive leer, but the other, a heavily scarred man with cold, colorless eyes, pinned her against the wall just outside her cell, giving her breast a hard squeeze.

She struggled in vain against his massive chest, crying out in pain and shock as he slid a hand inside her bodice to pinch a tender nipple.

"Don't care whether you're a servant or not," he leaned forward to whisper, his hot, rank breath making her cringe in revulsion. "Got a nice pair of tits on you, girl. Why don't we go in here and you show me what else you're hiding under this fancy dress, eh?"

The man groaned suggestively, and she gasped as she felt something hard pressing into the soft flesh of her stomach. But then she recalled something her brother had once told her. The action might get her killed, but she couldn't stand the thought of being brutally violated without at least attempting to fight back.

"If a boy ever touches you inappropriately, bring your knee up between his legs, Gwen," Elyan had said in a firm, uncompromising voice. "I'm sure I'll be around to run him through myself, but if I'm not for any reason, you need to know how to defend yourself."

At twelve years old, she'd giggled at him for his serious speech. How silly! Girls don't need to fight, not when they have such brave, strong fathers and brothers around to protect them.

But now they were both gone, having taken any illusions of safety right along with them. She'd grown into a woman without their support, learning to rely on her own strength to see her through some of the most painful and frightening experiences of her life. Indeed, she would've never survived at all if she'd done nothing but sit around and wait for someone to rescue her.

And so when the guard dipped his head to nuzzle between her breasts, she let loose a fierce cry, slamming her knee into his groin with every bit of force she could muster.

He roared in anguish, releasing her from his clutches as he doubled over and cupped himself between shaking palms. Again and again he groaned, muttering a stream of curses both at her and at the pain itself. She stared at him in disbelief, shocked that she'd had the power to cripple a man who must've been almost twice her size.

"Cursed bitch! Get back here, or I'll..."

Before she knew it, she was fleeing like a scared rabbit, darting in and out of doorways and peering around corners, her heart thudding like a hammer in her chest. A clear route to freedom lay just ahead, but she couldn't leave... not without Lancelot. Pausing to take a deep breath, she turned and headed deeper into the fortress.

Where can he be? she wondered anxiously, ducking into a dark alcove to avoid a pair of passing guards.

"I will come for you before nightfall."

No, there wasn't time to wait any longer! Hengist knew he'd been deceived; no doubt orders had already been dispatched for her execution. If she were captured, she'd be thrown to those terrible beasts, leaving Lancelot no choice but to listen to her dying screams as she was torn to pieces. He'd be unable to reach her until it was far too late.

But he'd try nonetheless, she realized grimly, recalling the truth she'd recognized in his character on the night he'd ridden out to slay the Griffin. He'd face impossible odds without a second thought rather than leave her to suffer alone. Yes, he'd fight for her... and they'd kill him for his efforts. Slowly... Painfully...

I can't allow that to happen. I can't...

"There she is!"

As a pair of rough hands reached out to grab her, Gwen recognized her mistake. The long train of the unfamiliar silk gown lay outside the alcove where she'd thought herself well hidden, a bright purple banner clearly exposing her whereabouts. She tried to make one last, desperate lunge for freedom, but it was a futile effort.

No longer able to suppress her overwrought emotions, she began to cry as she was dragged back to the dungeons. The guards mocked her for the tears streaming down her face, but she didn't care. What did it matter? Her last chance of escape had come to nothing.

Imprisoned once more in her dismal cell, she sobbed helplessly as she imagined the gruesome death that would soon come to pass. She wept for Lancelot, knowing that despite her best efforts, it was unlikely she'd be able to prevent herself from screaming in agony and alerting him to her peril. More than anything, she cried for the future that would be forever lost to them both.

Her heart grieved for Camelot, for the home and friends she'd never see again. Burying her face in the thick velvet cloak, she inhaled the familiar scent of jasmine soap as she remembered Morgana's gentle teasing, quickly followed by Merlin's cheeky grin, and sweet old Gaius, who'd always treated her like his own daughter. What wouldn't she give to talk to them one last time, for one more chance to tell them how much they'd meant to her?

And then she thought of Arthur, smiling wistfully as she imagined the great king he'd be when his time finally came. It hurt more than words could describe to know she wouldn't live to see that day.

Her distraught weeping grew quieter, soon replaced by a feeling of grim resignation. Exhausted and drained, she curled up on the bed and awaited her fate.

When she heard the sound of keys in the lock just a few minutes later, she braced herself for the inevitable. But it wasn't the leering faces of the guards that greeted her, nor Hengist's cold eyes and menacing glare. It was Lancelot himself who entered the cell, holding out his hand with a smile of triumph on his face. She beamed back at him as she wrapped her fingers tightly around his, warm and strong beneath her touch.

How could I have ever doubted him? she wondered as they fled up the stairs and burst out into the corridor above.

A guard reached out from an alcove to grab her arm, but before she could even cry out in distress, Lancelot was on him. He drew his sword, delivering a lethal blow with such lightning speed that her eyes weren't even able to follow the motion. She glanced down at the body lying in a puddle of blood at her feet, then looked up at him in awe.

"Are you all right?" he whispered, reaching out to touch her face.

Speechless, she nodded.

And then they were off again, racing through the seemingly endless corridors while Lancelot swiftly dispatched of any stray enemies they encountered along the way. Her muscles soon grew weary from the unaccustomed exertion, but still she pressed onward, clinging fiercely to his hand throughout their desperate flight toward freedom.

Just as they reached what appeared to be a long tunnel, they were overtaken by a trio of guards. She gasped in horror as they wrestled Lancelot to his knees, quite certain he'd be slaughtered right in front of her eyes. But somehow he struggled to his feet; in a matter of seconds, a small heap of bodies lay lifeless beneath his dripping sword.

There were shouts in the distance, followed by the pounding of dozens of pairs of heavy boots. Realizing the alarm had been sounded, she trembled in fear, gripping Lancelot's fingers more tightly as the ominous noises drew ever closer. She tried to lend her tired feet an extra burst of speed, only to gasp in surprise when he stopped her short.

"Follow this tunnel," he told her urgently. "It will lead you out beyond the castle walls. I will buy you as much time as I can."

She stared at him in horror. "I am not leaving you."

"You must."

Her eyes searched his face, recognizing the determined set of his jaw. She'd seen it before – a firm, unyielding resolve that no power on earth, not even her most desperate pleas, could possibly shake. It was the essence of who he was inside, a soul that found its strength in doing what he truly believed to be right, no matter the cost to himself.

"I won't leave you here to die!" she protested, even though she suspected he'd already won the battle of wills between them.

"I would die for you one hundred times over," he murmured, his voice so gentle and sincere that her eyes filled with tears. "Live for me, or everything I am has been for nothing."

It was in that moment she recognized the choice before her, knowing in her heart what she had to do. If she stayed with him, he'd only be forced to defend them both, which would be much more challenging than just fighting for himself. How could she do that to him when his only hope of survival lay in the strength of his sword? He might be giving her a better chance by urging her to go on without him, but wouldn't she be offering the same by submitting to his wishes?

She kissed him then, hungry and yearning, hoping to show him all the things she no longer had time to speak aloud. There was no hesitation, no trace of the shyness she'd struggled with years before. Her lips were bold, tender and passionate, her tongue begging for entrance that was immediately granted.

Lancelot kissed her back with equal fierceness, as if he was attempting to breathe every trace of love he'd ever felt for her straight into her soul. For a few heartbeats, it was as if nothing existed beyond the exquisite feeling of his mouth moving against hers, and all of the desperate emotion that passed silently between them.

But then he broke off with a shuddering sigh as the sounds of their pursuers returned them to the reality of their circumstances. His body trembled beneath her fingertips as she clung to him, both shaken to the core by the power of that one brief kiss.

"As long as I live, my feelings for you will never fade," she whispered.

"Run," he said firmly, the naked longing in his eyes battling with the unyielding determination she'd recognized only a moment before. "Don't stop running until you are well away from here. Run."

She hesitated for a moment, and then she was gone.

Chapter Text

Chapter 45: Captured

With the memory of Gwen's sweet kiss fresh in his mind, Lancelot unsheathed his sword and braced himself for the onslaught. It was easy to imagine his racing heart was pounding in time with her running feet, every beat carrying her one step closer to freedom.

When Hengist's men came charging into the tunnel, he cut through them like sheaves of wheat, striking out at one after another with a rapid succession of brutal blows. He showed them no mercy, knowing that every lethal hit he managed to deliver would buy her a few more precious seconds.

Never in his life had he fought with more passion than he did in his valiant attempt to protect the woman he loved. Nothing was more noble, more honorable, more true to the essence of who he was inside than defending her life. With that thought in mind, he met his opponents with a quiet, yet ferocious determination, feeling as if he truly understood himself as he never had before.

That long forgotten quest for knighthood hadn't been the silly dream of a naive young man who didn't understand what it was to live in reality. No, it had been his destiny all along to live and die for others, never for himself. He'd been born to fight injustice wherever it appeared, to strive to create a better world for those who deserved to live in peace and safety.

His entire soul and being had rediscovered its purpose in Gwen. Before he'd gazed into the mirror her presence had held before his eyes, he'd been a stranger to himself, a bitter, hardened man who'd lost his spirit to a meaningless existence. His love for her was the powerful force that had awakened him to his true nature, pushing him to realize his better qualities to their full potential.

Yes, he'd gladly die for Gwen… without her, he'd forgotten what it was to truly live. She was the blood that coursed through his veins, the breath that filled his lungs in ragged gasps as he struggled to hold back the endless stream of attackers that fell upon him. She was the life within him, and for her sake, he found more to give, long after he'd exhausted himself beyond endurance.

Sweat dripped from his aching body, tinged with red as he began to bleed from a dozen lacerations all over his face and arms. But battered and bruised, he only fought harder as his heart continued to pound in rhythm with the phantom echo of her running footsteps.

And then he was overwhelmed, falling to his knees when a heavy club slammed into his midsection. Nonetheless, even the pain did nothing to erase his smile of triumph. He knew he'd managed to buy Gwen enough time to make it through the tunnel and well beyond, far from the clutches of Hengist or his terrible henchmen. Yes, that was all that mattered.

He didn't struggle as he was bound tightly and dragged through the fortress, then flung headlong into the cage to meet his fate. He'd already accepted his own death as inevitable, only fighting to prolong his final moments to make sure she'd had time to escape.

Now she was free. He'd battled for her life, the most precious life he could ever imagine, and he had succeeded. And through this one final act of sheer desperation, he found redemption for all his past failures. He let out a satisfied sigh, letting go of a lifetime of regret that suddenly seemed trivial in comparison with this night's triumph.

"Before you die," Hengist growled in a menacing voice, drawing out his words with relish. "I can promise you the most unimaginable pain."

He nearly laughed as he stared directly into the man's eyes, immune to his intimidating threats. "You can do what you will with me. I do not care. You can do no harm to Guinevere."

"Oh, was that her name? And you really believe she's worth dying for?"

"She's worth more to me than you will ever understand," he responded, pitying any man who knew nothing of life except brutality. How had he ever allowed himself to believe he was one of them? He'd thank Gwen with his dying breath for opening his eyes to the truth.

Hengist signaled to a pair of guards who stood ready beside a dangling rope, and the gate slowly creaked open. Lancelot turned his head, bracing himself for death as he watched for the Wilddeoren that was only seconds away from tearing into his flesh. He'd die bravely and with dignity, he promised himself, no crying out or begging for mercy when he met what was sure to be a painful end.

But instead, his horrified eyes were met by a sight that caused him far greater agony than any Wilddeoren could've inflicted upon him. It was Gwen who was being shoved roughly into the cage, bound at the wrists in the same manner as himself. He shook his head in denial, mouthing a single word as her eyes met his with a stare of hopeless defeat.


"You thought she got away," Hengist's mocking voice intruded, his gleeful expression making it clear how much he was enjoying Lancelot's visible anguish. "No. You failed her. And that must hurt you more than I will ever understand."

He was right, and Lancelot hated him for it.

Gwen struggled not to cry as she was lashed tightly to Lancelot's back. His solid warmth brought her a small measure of comfort, however, enough that she was able to hold her tears at bay for the time being.

She'd tried to run, pushing her exhausted body to its limits and beyond. Sorrowful but determined, she'd fought against the urge to turn around and rush straight back to his side, forcing her feet to keep moving forward in a desperate attempt to honor the unspoken promise she'd granted him. She'd hesitated only once, stopping dead in her tracks when a cry of pain had reached her ears, before continuing on with even more reluctance than before.

But it seemed that once had been enough to seal her fate. She'd emerged from the tunnel with a gasp of relief… at the very same moment a small group of guards had rounded the corner and spotted her.

If only she'd run a little faster, she never would've been captured. If she hadn't hesitated for those few precious seconds, she could have disappeared into the darkness of the forest that had lain just a few steps away. If only...

"What do you say?" Hengist teased the bloodthirsty crowd with a mischievous gleam in his eye. "Shall I spare them?"

"Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!" they shouted in unison.

Gwen's eyes filled with tears all over again. If it weren't for her, Lancelot wouldn't be facing a slow and terrible death. She should have done something to prevent this from happening. Perhaps she should've lied when he'd first come to her, coldly turning him away with claims that she didn't want his help and that she was in no danger.

No, she'd been right to tell him the truth, and besides, he wouldn't have believed anything else she could've come up with anyway.

Even though that realization made her feel a tiny bit better, she still couldn't help blaming herself for being caught. Why hadn't she run faster? At the very least, she might've been able to spare him the pain of having to bear her suffering on top of his own. He could have died with the comfort of knowing he'd saved her life, rather than feeling as if he'd failed her.

"I am sorry," she said tearfully, her voice shaky and distraught. "This is my fault."

"You have nothing to be sorry for," he responded gently. "You reminded me of who I am. I will die with faith in my heart. That is worth more than anything."

And then his hands found hers, threading their fingers together with a warm, solid grip. She felt him sigh deeply and straighten his back, knowing he wasn't only trying to brace himself for what was to come, but also offering her his strength.

"Release the Wilddeoren!" Hengist shouted, his harsh voice filled with eager anticipation.

When the terrible creature emerged, the reality was so much more terrifying than she could've ever imagined. It was larger, more menacing as it approached, the jagged teeth protruding from its dripping jaws seeming twice as long as they'd been the first time she'd seen them.

It raised its head and sniffed loudly, immediately detecting their scent. The smell of food, Gwen realized fearfully as it came closer.

And then all rational thought fled in the face of desperate panic.

Lancelot kicked ineffectually at the beast, cursing inwardly at his own helplessness as he tried to twist his body so the creature might attack him first. There was no point in shielding Gwen when it was clearly over for them both, but he couldn't help himself. He acted on instinct alone, submitting to reflexes that knew no stronger purpose than the need to shelter her from harm.

She cried out in terror, struggling against the ropes that bound them together as the jaws of death loomed closer and closer, and there was nothing he could do to save her. It was his worst nightmare brought to life – a reality where Gwen was in immediate peril and it was beyond his power to remove the cause of her distress.

He didn't know how he could bear it… and yet, there was no other choice.

Let me die first, he pleaded silently. Please...

And then in the blink of an eye they were no longer alone in the cage. A sword flashed through the air, slicing through the bonds that held them both captive, and he found himself with a weapon in his hand. He didn't recognize the man at first, but knew him to be a friend when he thrust Gwen safely behind them and struck out at the dreadful Wilddeoren in their defense.

He seemed strangely familiar as Lancelot studied him out of the corner of his eye, a proud, noble looking man who seemed ill-suited to the shabby bandit's clothing he wore. It was only when he spoke aloud that memory came flooding back. 

Arthur. Arthur Pendragon.

"What are you doing here, Lancelot?"

"I came to save Gwen. What about you?"

"Likewise," Arthur responded briefly.

The Wilddeoren's hide was nearly impenetrable; it barely responded to the blows they rained down upon its back. It would fall easily if one of them could get a clear shot at its belly, but there wasn't time to wait for such an opportunity. The crowd of men who surrounded them were stirred into a fever pitch, roaring for their blood as Hengist approached the cage with a face full of fury.

"The tunnel," Arthur said hastily. "It's our only chance. Merlin!"

Merlin's here too? 

Yes, of course he was. Gwen was his friend, and he would've found a way to help her if she was in danger. He must have enlisted the help of Arthur and his knights somehow, and Lancelot knew from experience how impossible it was to convince him to remain behind.

The realization would have made him smile, were it not for the chaos going on all around them. Hengist and several of his men entered the cage just as Arthur urged them all into the mouth of the tunnel. Lancelot turned with his sword at the ready, preparing to hold back the rush of attackers so the others might have a chance to escape.

"Take Guinevere! I'll hold them off."

"No!" she cried in protest, and he turned to meet her pleading eyes with a determined stare of his own. This was her chance, her only chance, and he had no intention of allowing her to squander it. He meant to tell her so, then to reassure her yet again of his willingness to die for her, but before he could open his mouth to speak, Arthur was already pulling her away with a command of his own.

"Guinevere, we have to go!"

Just as Lancelot was about to order Merlin to flee with the others, a spell was uttered and the gate came crashing down, effectively cutting them off from any further threat of danger.

The magic… he'd forgotten about the magic.

He didn't turn his eyes from the sight of Hengist as his former captor was brutally torn to pieces by the very same creature he'd used to put an end to countless lives for his own amusement. No, Lancelot's ears practically relished the terrified screams; he'd never been a spiteful man, but it was hard to imagine a death that was more fitting or so richly deserved.

"I see you're still up to your old tricks, Merlin," he said in fond amusement.

"It's probably best you don't tell anyone about that," his old friend replied, though it wasn't necessary. The trust between them hadn't diminished during their separation, which was proven by the fact that Merlin had used magic in front of him in the first place.

So it's still a secret then, he realized with a trace of sadness. It was a shame that Arthur of all people couldn't know the truth. Merlin had just saved all their lives, and not for the first time either. He deserved a little recognition for his bravery.

But there wasn't time to give the matter any further thought as they were off again, racing once more toward freedom.

"Good to see you both," he said gratefully when they reached the end of the tunnel, pausing to rest as Arthur fiddled with the latch on the gate that led to the world outside. "Where are your knights?"

"It's just us."

He might've dwelled on that if another thought hadn't swiftly arose to overpower his curiosity. He was alive. They were only a few steps away from safety; he'd live to see another day, along with all the days that followed. Once again, he had a lifetime to look forward to… a lifetime he might be able to share with Gwen.

As soon as they had a chance to talk, he'd tell her he was ready to return to Camelot. He might speak with Arthur first just to be sure there'd be no further issue concerning the king, but it didn't seem likely that a man like Uther would even remember him.

Yes, he'd find himself an honest living, then build a life with her like he should've done in the first place. There was no limit to how much he'd love her, devoting every waking moment to her safety, her comfort, her happiness. It might be a humble life, but she'd want for nothing if it was in his power to provide it.

Lancelot knew the intensity of his feelings was clear on his face as he helped her to her feet, clinging to her hand as she blushed and gave him a joyful smile. And for the span of a few heartbeats, the world seemed to glow with her beauty, radiant with all the love that passed between them.

It was a single moment of absolute perfection… abruptly shattered by the harshness of a reality he hadn't even considered.

Her expression suddenly changed, tenderness replaced by a great deal of discomfort as she pulled her fingers from his grasp and quickly stepped away. His bewildered gaze followed the direction of her eyes, and with a terrible sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he recognized the cause of her distress.

Arthur was staring at them both, his features fixed in a rigid mask of betrayal.

Chapter Text

Chapter 46: Almost Everything

Gwen scolded herself for her thoughtlessness, resolving to be more discreet about her feelings for Lancelot while in Arthur's presence. Even though she had no reason to feel guilty under the circumstances, she still didn't want to be responsible for upsetting him… especially when he'd gone to so much trouble to rescue them both.

Of course, it was easy to forget that when she began to realize he wasn't going to accept what he'd seen with anything resembling grace or maturity.

Lancelot offered to help Merlin collect firewood when they stopped to make camp, giving her a small smile as they trudged off into the woods together. Left alone with Arthur, she approached him hesitantly, hoping she might be able to resolve the unfortunate misunderstanding between them.

"I wanted to thank you for saving my life."

She'd intentionally not mentioned "our lives" in consideration of his feelings.

He cleared his throat gruffly, striding some distance away before responding. "It's my duty to protect the citizens of this kingdom."

"Yes, but..."

"Your gratitude is appreciated, but not necessary. Now go back to camp and get some rest. We have a long journey ahead of us in the morning, and I can't have you straggling behind."

"Arthur, I wanted to tell you..."

"That is, if you even intend on returning with us at all," he continued as if he hadn't heard her.

She frowned in confusion. "Camelot is my home. Why would I not return?"

"I can't pretend to know what you want, Guinevere. I thought I did, but... well, nevermind. Go back to camp. It's probably best if we're not seen talking alone like this."

The sarcasm in his voice was suddenly infuriating. Why was he behaving as if she'd betrayed him? He'd kissed her once, yes, but she'd never asked him to do that, had she? And afterwards, what had he told her? He'd made it clear that a romance between them would be impossible, even if she'd wanted to be with him.

So why was he treating her this way? She'd made no promises to him, had she? Why should she be made to feel as if she'd done something wrong? Because he gazed at her longingly from a distance sometimes? Because he'd saved their lives? Neither of those things gave him any right to make a claim on her feelings.

No matter. She was utterly drained from her recent ordeal, lacking the patience to stand there and tolerate his rudeness while he continued to dodge the real issue.

"Arthur, I'm very sorry if I misled you," she said, struggling to keep her voice gentle and compassionate. "Please know that was never my intention. Lancelot and I..."

"I don't know why you're telling me this," he interrupted, suddenly fixated on peeling the bark from a nearby tree. "You know as well as I do that I could never become involved with a... a servant. Maybe I'm the one who has given you the wrong impression, Guinevere, if I've led you to believe your personal life is of any interest to me. Now go back to camp and rest."


"That wasn't a request, Guinevere. Go."

She sighed helplessly and went, deciding that if acting like a child was the only way he knew how to deal with his feelings, then so be it. She settled herself right next to Lancelot, deciding he'd just have to get used to the idea whether he liked it or not.

The camp was awkwardly silent as Merlin served them all a bit of bread and hard cheese that he'd retrieved from the saddlebags. Arthur refused the food, but Gwen barely noticed as she devoured hers gratefully, relishing the first decent meal she'd had since leaving Camelot.

When she met Arthur's eyes again, he was still scowling at her. Lancelot and Merlin fidgeted awkwardly, struggling to focus their attention elsewhere in response to the tension, and their discomfort made her furious. Typical, she thought irritably, as she glared back at him with eyes full of resentment. As always, he's completely blind to the needs and feelings of anyone other than himself.

It was Lancelot who finally spoke, bringing an end to the heavy, unbearable silence.

"I'm surprised you would undertake such a rescue mission with just the two of you," he remarked, his voice full of curiosity.

Arthur shifted uncomfortably. "My father would not risk the lives of his knights for a servant."

"And yet you disobeyed him and came here anyway," Lancelot replied, clearly seeking information in the most straightforward manner his polite nature would allow. He wanted answers, Gwen knew, suddenly realizing that he was far too perceptive not to be suspicious of Arthur's motives.

"Truth is, I only came because Morgana begged me," Arthur responded carelessly.

Gwen felt as if she'd been slapped. It was humiliating, but more than that, it was hurtful. Despite her feelings for Lancelot, she'd truly believed she and Arthur were friends, especially after she'd allowed him to stay in her home. She didn't deserve to be treated as if her life was worthless to him, just so he might save face in front of others.

"I think I'll get some rest," she said abruptly, desperately wanting to put an end to the unpleasant conversation.

"We should all get some rest," Arthur agreed in a gruff voice.

"I'll stand guard for a while," Lancelot commented to no one in particular, as he turned and walked a short distance from the camp.

So tired he could barely think straight, he settled himself on the ground and leaned his head against the tree at his back. He tried to fight his weariness, fearing that if he closed his eyes, he'd only remember Arthur's awful look of betrayal, followed by the guilt and shame he'd seen on Gwen's face in response to that pain.

He wanted to believe he'd misinterpreted the signs, wishing he could take Arthur at his word that he'd only come as a favor to a friend, nothing more. But what reason could he have possibly had for staring at Gwen as if she'd broken his heart, unless there was something between them? And what did she feel for him in return?

His exhausted brain was a mess of conflicting emotions that only seemed to become more tangled as he struggled to sort them out. Wearily, he shook his head in defeat as he stretched out on the ground, deciding it might be best to allow himself to rest after all, if only for a moment...

Lancelot was awoken a few hours later as Gwen settled herself beside him, hardly remembering how to breathe when she rested her head on his shoulder with a soft sigh of contentment. His body reacted instinctively, leaving no room for conscious thought as he reached out and pulled her into his arms.

"Gwen..." he murmured in surprise, just before his lips found hers in the darkness.

He'd kissed her twice before, but only on the brink of some mortal peril that had demanded a great deal of urgency. These kisses were something else entirely, for it was the first chance they'd ever had to take their time and simply enjoy one another.

He rose up on one elbow as she stretched out beneath him, kissing her with a tenderness that made her sigh with pleasure as she tangled her fingers in his hair. Resisting the temptation of her open, inviting mouth, his lips teased hers ever so lightly, until she finally grew impatient and pulled his head down rather insistently to encourage a deeper kiss.

With a soft chuckle, he gladly submitted to her demands, loving her eagerness as she whimpered and pressed herself more firmly against his body in response.

He ravished her mouth urgently, hungrily, before pulling away with a shuddering sigh to rain kisses across her jaw, then down the soft column of her throat. She murmured in encouragement, tilting her head to the side to give him easier access as he brushed her dark curls aside and traced the sensitive contours of her ear with the tip of his tongue.

"Lancelot?" she whispered, her voice coming out husky and uneven.


"C-could you...?" she trailed off uncertainly, and the hesitation in her voice stopped him short. He pulled back to look at her face in sudden concern. Had he gone too far?

"Tell me," he murmured, ready to put aside his swiftly growing need if necessary. "Do you want me to stop?"

"No!" she exclaimed, followed by a self-conscious laugh. "No, I was just going to ask if you could remove your armor. It's a little uncomfortable."

Relieved, he smiled down at her as he sat up and unbuckled his belt, then took off the heavy mail shirt and tossed it aside. He meant to leave the rest of his clothing intact, but instantly changed his mind when a soft hand slid beneath his shirt to caress his bare back. There was something that sounded suspiciously like a giggle as he struggled free of the garment, immediately forgotten when she blushed as the sight of his bare chest was revealed to her.

When he stretched out beside her again, he held himself in check as she explored his body, curiosity swiftly overcoming her shyness as her fingers played in his chest hair, then drifted lower to skim across the flat planes of his stomach. Finally, when he could bear it no longer, he captured her hand and pressed it against his swiftly beating heart, kissing her fiercely as his body trembled with need.

There was something inside him that voiced a protest; some feeble, distant reminder as to why he should not allow this to go any further. It whispered to him when he slid his hand down to cup one of her sweetly rounded breasts, but he banished it from his mind. Unless Gwen herself asked him to stop, he found it impossible to think of any reason why he should.

She was so beautiful as she lay there beside him, biting her lip to suppress her soft moans of pleasure as she gazed at him with heavy lidded eyes. And in that moment, nothing seemed more right than being with the woman he loved, body and soul.

He slipped his hand inside the bodice of her gown, carefully watching her face for any sign of discomfort as he did so. Instead of offering any objection, however, she only sat up and gestured to the knotted ribbons at her back, peeking at him over one shoulder with a shy smile.

Rising to kneel behind her, he freed the ties with shaking fingers, easing the purple silk from her shoulders as he rained kisses down upon her soft skin. She turned in his arms, her cheeks flushing crimson as she hesitated, then dropped her arms and let the gown fall to her waist.

For a dazed moment, Lancelot could only stare at the impossibly lovely sight of Gwen's bare breasts. He opened his mouth, and then closed it again, shaking his head as he found himself without the words to sufficiently compliment her beauty. She seemed to understand his meaning nonetheless, ducking her head with a knowing smile.

He eased her gently to the ground, his lips briefly meeting hers before drifting lower to close around a taut nipple. Gwen whimpered helplessly, burying her fingers in his hair as he lavished her breasts, then trailed his lips across the soft contours of her belly before returning to her mouth for another deep, hungry kiss.

"Don't let me interrupt," intruded a sarcastic voice, and reality came crashing down.

Gwen sat up abruptly, hastily pulling her gown up to cover her exposed breasts while she remained shielded from view by Lancelot's larger body. Tying her sash in a clumsy knot at her back, she rose to her feet and glared at Arthur.

He was standing some distance away, far enough that he probably hadn't been able to make out very much in the darkness. She felt her initial embarrassment fading away, replaced by irritation. If he truly hadn't meant to interrupt, then why had he felt the need to announce his presence instead of just leaving them undisturbed?

Because he's Arthur.

"I awoke to find you gone, Guinevere," he said stiffly. "I wanted to make sure you were safe, but I can see now that you're well taken care of. It seems obvious that my presence is not needed here."

And without another word, he turned and stalked away.

Gwen turned back to Lancelot, dismayed to find him staring at Arthur's retreating back with a sick expression on his face. She knelt beside him and laid a hand on his shoulder, blinking in confusion when he cringed away from her touch. Surely he wouldn't believe Arthur's jealousy meant she was involved with him, would he?

"Lancelot," she started a little awkwardly. "Please don't think that..."

He raised a hand, effectively cutting her off. "You don't have to explain yourself to me."


"It's all right, Gwen," he interrupted gently. "This isn't the time for talking about things that aren't important. There's a long journey ahead in just a few hours, and you've been through a lot these past couple days. Please, sleep while you can."

She looked at him uncertainly. "Can we talk about it tomorrow?"

He swallowed hard, hesitating before he responded. "Tomorrow, you'll know my feelings."

The response sounded a little strange, but as she studied his face, she could see the exhaustion in his eyes and the weary droop of his shoulders. He's just tired, she reassured herself. We're all tired. I should leave him to his rest. Everything will be fine when we've all had time to recover. Perhaps even Arthur will be a little more reasonable.

She bid him good night, then slowly made her way back to camp. Merlin was awake when she returned, stirring the dying embers of the fire with a curiously melancholy look upon his face. She wanted to ask if he was all right, but she was just too drained to speak to anyone else.

Instead, she gave him what she hoped was a comforting smile, then curled up and drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter 47: The Leavetaking

Lancelot stood alone in the darkness, struggling with his conflicting emotions as he tried to accept what he knew in his heart to be the truth.

At first, he hadn't wanted to believe it when he'd noticed the tension between Arthur and Gwen. Then he'd been so exhausted that his mind had been unable to grasp the enormity of the dilemma looming before him, and so he'd cast it aside.

And then she'd come to him like a dream, rousing him from slumber with her sweet, soft body and eager kisses. He'd hardly been conscious enough to remember his name at first, and by the time he'd fully awakened, he'd been too lost in the moment to think of anything beyond how amazing she'd felt and how much he'd wanted to be with her.

If Arthur hadn't interrupted... Part of him insisted he would've put a stop to what had almost happened, but he was only lying to himself. Given the opportunity, he would've taken her right then and there, with no other thought beyond how desperately he loved her… how much his body had ached to bring satisfaction to them both.

Forgetting everything else had been effortless when she'd been near, and that was what frightened him the most. If his desire could so easily rise to overpower any thought as to what might be best for her, how could he trust himself at all?

There was no denying Arthur had strong feelings for Gwen, but judging by the shame, guilt, and discomfort he'd seen on her face, she was conflicted on the matter. What left Lancelot bewildered was why she'd even consider choosing him over a man like Arthur. Was it that she assumed a future wouldn't be possible with someone of royal status, deciding it would be best to settle for a man who was within her reach?

Perhaps she was afraid that loving a prince would only end in heartbreak, but Lancelot knew better. Arthur was a noble man; it was impossible to imagine him becoming involved with Gwen unless his intentions were honorable. Maybe Uther would frown on it, but when Arthur became king, who would there be to stop him from changing the laws and marrying exactly who he chose?

Gwen could be Queen of Camelot, he suddenly realized in amazement.

And if Arthur did make her his queen, she'd have access to luxuries that Lancelot would never be able to give her – wealth and privilege, security and comfort, the protection of an entire army at her disposal. She'd have everything at her fingertips, a life filled with all the things she so richly deserved. How could he interfere with her chance to be with someone who could give her that... so much more than a man like himself could ever dream of?

Because I want her for myself, a tiny voice inside him whispered, unwilling to surrender just yet. Because she's the only woman I'll ever love, and I can't bear the thought of her being with anyone else, even if he is the better choice.

He went back and forth for a time, until finally admitting to himself that he was trying to find reasons to justify staying where they didn't exist.

How could he stay here and force her to choose between them, especially if she didn't even realize what might be possible with Arthur someday?

And yet, what if he was wrong? What if it was Lancelot she loved, in a way that had nothing to do with feeling that her chances were better with him than with Arthur? What if she didn't care about a grander life, becoming queen, or all the rest of it? Shouldn't he talk with her and make sure that wasn't the case before making any permanent decisions?

You're only deluding yourself, he told himself harshly. Why would she want...? No. It would be selfish to make this harder on anyone than it had to be. He'd seen what had passed between them with his own eyes; now he needed to be strong for her sake and give them the chance they both deserved.

The sky was beginning to lighten when Merlin came to sit at his side, and suddenly, he had to speak the question aloud. It didn't matter that he already knew the truth. He needed confirmation, just to be absolutely sure he'd no longer be plagued by lingering doubts. Otherwise, he didn't know if he'd be able to find the strength to leave.

"Is it true that Arthur came to rescue Gwen because Morgana begged him?"

Merlin said nothing, just looked at him sadly in response.

Lancelot let out a heavy sigh, fighting to suppress the pain as his last, faint hope dissolved into nothing. He'd expected no less, but seeing it reflected back at him made it real. He swallowed hard. "He has feelings for her, doesn't he?"

"What about you? Do you have feelings for Gwen?"

"My feelings do not matter. I will not come between them."

Realization dawned in Merlin's eyes, understanding what he intended to do. A small part of him couldn't help hoping his friend would offer some kind of protest, tell him he was wrong or perhaps suggest a less painful alternative. It probably wouldn't change anything, but he longed for something, anything to delay the awful finality of his decision.

But Merlin said nothing, only gazed back at him with a face full of sympathy and regret.

"Tell Gwen..." Lancelot started, then paused as he struggled to put voice to the most painful words he'd ever had to utter aloud. "Tell Gwen she has changed me forever, but some things cannot be."

For a while, they lingered in melancholy silence, until Merlin finally spoke again. "Where will you go?"

"Does it matter?"

"It does to me. I'm your friend, and I care about what happens to you. Just because..." Merlin paused to gesture vaguely at Gwen's sleeping figure in the distance. "Well, you shouldn't forget everyone else, leave them to wonder whether you're all right, or if you're even alive at all."

The pain in his eyes made Lancelot feel worse than he already did, if such a thing was even possible. He suddenly recognized how much his friend had been affected by his long years of silence and was overcome by regret... until he realized that this, at least, was a situation where he might be able to make amends for his mistakes.

"I'm sorry, Merlin," he said sincerely. "You're right. I should have sent word to you after I left Camelot. Believe me, I thought about it many times. It's just... I was ashamed at how far I'd allowed myself to fall, and I didn't think anyone would want to..."

He trailed off when the other man let out an impatient snort. "Lancelot, don't you understand that a true friend cares about you no matter what? You have nothing to prove to me."

"What I was doing before I came here..."

"Doesn't matter," Merlin cut him off. He looked as if he wanted to say something else, but their conversation was interrupted as Arthur stirred, then rose to stumble into the woods on the other side of the camp, most likely to answer a call of nature.

"I should be on my way. But I-I'll send word as soon as I can. You have my promise. Just... look after her, will you? For my sake."

"Of course I will."

The two friends parted with a great deal of reluctance, as there was no telling when, or even if, they might see each other again. As they shared a quick embrace, Lancelot suddenly wished they'd had more time to talk before his necessary departure. He wished for a lot of things... most of all, that he hadn't chosen to turn back for one final glance at the small, sleeping figure in the distance.

He saw her lying there, beautiful, innocent, and vulnerable in her slumber, and for the briefest instant, he changed his mind. Suddenly, all his firm resolution was overshadowed by the intensity of tender emotions that pleaded with him to stay right there and protect her for the rest of his life, no matter the cost. He took one step closer, and then another...

But when he closed his eyes, his mind conjured up an awful vision of her being lashed to his body to face an agonizing death while he'd been utterly powerless to raise a hand in her defense. He saw Arthur arising like a hero to offer salvation to them both, remembering with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that without him, she'd be dead. Not Lancelot... Arthur.

And so with feet that felt as heavy as lead, he turned and walked away.

Gwen knew the truth from the moment she opened her eyes, though she fought desperately to ignore the empty feeling all around her as she spoke to Merlin in a falsely cheerful voice.

"Where's Lancelot?"

When he didn't respond right away, her eyes filled with tears. "Where is he?"

"He's gone."

She whispered a useless denial as she struggled for composure, too bewildered by shock and pain to even begin to process anything beyond the simple fact that he was no longer there. After all that had passed between them, he'd left her without even saying goodbye.

"He said that some things can't be," Merlin told her gently. "He wanted you to know that you've changed him forever."

Gwen nodded reluctantly. Yes, that definitely sounded like one of the senseless, noble explanations Lancelot would give to justify something that didn't make any sense at all. It was just like before, when he'd felt the need to leave Camelot to prove his worth and had gone on and on in his letter about not wanting to hold her back, how he wasn't enough just as he was, and all that other nonsense he'd seemed to believe about himself.

Is that what this is? she wondered sadly, fighting to bring her weeping under control. Has he decided yet again that he's unworthy of me, without bothering to consider how I might feel about it?

No, she realized a few hours later, as she rode in grim silence beside Arthur on the journey home. No, that isn't it. He intended to stay with me. I know he did. So what could have possibly changed his mind?

Was it Arthur? Had they gotten into some sort of a confrontation while she'd been asleep? Had Lancelot been forbidden from returning to Camelot?

She studied the proud, noble lines of Arthur's profile out of the corner of her eye, then shook her head, ashamed the thought had even crossed her mind. He might've behaved rudely the previous day, and perhaps he could be a little childish at times, but he wasn't a cruel man. He would have never treated Lancelot so unjustly.

The more she tried to figure it out, the more confused she seemed to become. Still drained from her captivity and overwhelmed by grief, regardless of the reason for it, she eventually gave in to numb exhaustion and put it from her mind for the time being.

Her spirits were lifted somewhat as the familiar towers of the Citadel finally became visible in the distance. It might be a bittersweet homecoming, but she was home all the same.

After Morgana had welcomed Gwen with a warm, comforting hug, she made it clear how worried she'd been as she sought to take care of her in every way she could possibly think of. First, she'd summoned Gaius, despite Gwen's insistence that she wasn't injured, merely tired, and would be fine after she'd had some rest.

Gaius confirmed that exhaustion was her only affliction, but glanced at her suspiciously as she looked at him with dull, lifeless eyes. "Is there anything you want to tell me, Gwen?" he said under his breath when Morgana's back was turned. "I know it's embarrassing, but you can trust me. If your captors injured you in any other way..."

Realizing what he was alluding to, she hastily shook her head. There was nothing wrong with her beyond a broken heart, and she knew very well there was nothing Gaius could do about that.

After that, Morgana invited Gwen to her chamber, where she was surprised to find a hot bath waiting for her. It was a curious thing to have Morgana behaving almost as if she were the servant, helping Gwen wash her hair and dress in another one of her fancy gowns. Gwen appreciated the efforts, but all she really wanted to do was put on her normal clothes, then go home and sleep in her own bed.

A few hours later, she meandered slowly through the streets of Camelot, losing her way twice before she finally made it home. Alone at long last, she allowed herself to break down, sobbing brokenly into her pillow for what seemed like hours before surrendering to the deep, exhausted sleep her body craved.

Tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow, I'll understand.

Chapter Text

Chapter 48: Aftermath

Gwen hardly left her bed for nearly four days.

After her exhausted body had fully recovered, she awoke to find herself staring listlessly at the wall, unable to imagine any reason why she should bother to rise and dress. The only obligation she could remember was her service to Morgana, who'd already insisted she take several days to rest before returning to work. In the meantime, what else required her to even pretend to function?


She curled up in a ball and stayed that way for hours, gazing out the window with grief stricken eyes that never noticed the sun as it rose in the sky, then gradually made its descent to cast the room in darkness again. Her ears didn't register the hum of city life right outside her door, a familiar cadence that might have been comforting if she'd had the ability to hear it.

No, she was aware of nothing beyond a hollow ache that felt as if it were sucking the life out of her. Dry eyed and silent, she struggled to suppress her devastated emotions, determined to bury them so deep that she wouldn't have to feel anything at all. Numbness was the only sensation that offered some sort of relief; she sought it hungrily, willing to do whatever it took to avoid facing the reality of her broken heart.

It wasn't until the third night that something of her former self began to surface, unwilling to accept the dull, wordless escape any longer. A lifetime of belief broke through the void, reminding her that running away from problems never solved anything, and that even the most difficult situations must be faced with honesty and courage.

And then there in the darkness, she whispered a single question that filled the empty room like a shout.


Why did he leave her? Why didn't he say goodbye? Why wasn't she given some kind of explanation? Why couldn't he have at least tried to make her understand?

I thought he loved me... no, I know he did. Why would he just abandon me as if I meant nothing to him?

At that thought, she burst into tears, her chest heaving with frantic sobs as she searched her mind for answers that might provide some small comfort in her despair. Perhaps they wouldn't be the right answers – Lancelot had robbed her of that certainty by not telling her the truth himself. But she needed something, anything to help her understand why it had all gone so terribly wrong.

As painful as it was, she forced herself to examine every detail of the time they'd spent together. Her heart ached as she remembered the love they'd rediscovered while she'd been a captive, followed by Lancelot's impassioned words and desperate attempts to free her. Then she thought about the bliss they'd shared in each other's arms on that final night, even more bewildered than she'd been when she'd started.

It had all felt so right...

Maybe the tension between me and Arthur was to blame? she considered briefly, recalling Lancelot's pointed questions and visible discomfort.

But how could that have been the reason? She'd sought him out later that evening and he'd welcomed her eagerly, responding with tenderness and obvious desire. There hadn't been a trace of uncertainty in the way he'd touched her there in the darkness, no mistaking the love she'd felt in his kisses. And if Arthur hadn't interrupted...

Suddenly, she knew.

With a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, she realized it had been that awkward intrusion that had changed everything. Lancelot must have come to the conclusion that there really was something going on between them. Yes, he must've been only a little suspicious earlier that night, and then something she or Arthur had done had confirmed it in his mind.

How had her reactions appeared through Lancelot's eyes rather than her own? Her hasty attempts to cover herself, which had been nothing more than natural modesty... had that seemed to him like she was trying to hide her unfaithfulness? And when Arthur had commented bitterly upon finding her in another man's arms... had the words come to Lancelot's ears as those of a betrayed lover rather than the product of unrequited feelings she'd known them to be?

Yes, that has to be it, she told herself, becoming even more certain as she remembered the expression on his face as he'd watched Arthur storm away. She didn't want to believe it, but what other explanation could there be? After all the intimacy that had passed between them only minutes before Arthur's interruption, Lancelot had flinched away from her in the aftermath as if her touch had suddenly been too painful to bear.

And then he'd stopped her before she'd had the chance to reassure him of her feelings for him. She'd convinced herself he'd merely been tired at the time, but what had been the real reason behind his reluctance to hear her out?

"You don't have to explain yourself to me."

He must have suspected the worst if he'd been so insistent on not allowing her to speak at all. For if he'd had even the smallest hope that she might tell him that he was the one she loved, not Arthur, wouldn't he have taken the risk and listened?

"This isn't the time for talking about things that aren't important."

Not important because he'd thought she meant to reject him anyway? No, that didn't make any sense either. How could he have possibly doubted her feelings after everything they'd been through together? Lancelot might be humble by nature, but he wasn't blind. He had to have known how much she'd wanted to be with him. Hadn't she made that clear all along?

Suddenly, it occurred to her that if he'd believed she felt something for Arthur, perhaps it hadn't mattered who she might have chosen in the end. He'd never struck her as the jealous type, but then again, he did have a strong sense of honor and loyalty. Maybe he'd felt as if she'd betrayed him, something that had hurt him so deeply he hadn't wanted to discuss it further.

As she considered that possibility, Gwen knew with a sinking heart that it had to be the truth.

Lancelot was no coward. If there had been even the smallest chance from his perspective, he would have listened to her. She was certain of that. The fact that he'd refused must have meant he'd already decided it was over. And she knew him – when his mind was made up, there was no turning back.

"Tomorrow, you'll know my feelings."

That was his goodbye. He looked me right in the eye and told me everything I needed to know, even if I didn't realize it at the time.

"Some things can't be."

Yes, that had to be it. He'd assumed she'd betrayed him with Arthur, deciding to close the door on her forever without even allowing her to have a say in the matter. Perhaps to him, she hadn't even deserved that right.

Even as the realization threatened to crush her beneath its tremendous weight, it drove the life back into her listless body. All the emotions she'd held back suddenly boiled up inside her – fury, betrayal, disappointment, and grief. The onslaught was overwhelming, but there was also a strange sort of relief in it. At least she finally understood what she was feeling, and while no less painful, solid reactions were far easier to endure than the hollow bewilderment she'd been left to struggle with before.

She was surprised by how weak her body felt when she rose from the bed, until she remembered she'd had nothing to eat in nearly four days. It was disturbing to realize she'd been so lost to her heartbreak that she hadn't even been able to feel her own hunger up until that moment. She made her way to the kitchen on shaky legs, grateful she'd at least had the presence of mind to drink a little water each day.

Most of her small supply of food was already spoiled, but she managed to find a handful of vegetables that were in decent shape. Working carefully so that her trembling hands wouldn't result in a nasty cut, she peeled them one by one, then set them to boil in a small copper kettle.

It didn't matter that the food was unseasoned or only half cooked when she sat down at the table to eat. She felt better almost instantly as she devoured the pitiful meal.

When she awoke the following morning, she had the energy to clean out her cupboards, then to dress and venture outside long enough to retrieve fresh water and supplies before returning to her bed. The day after that, she scrubbed the house from top to bottom, washed her clothes and linens, and didn't lie down at all until late in the evening when her exhausted body finally demanded rest.

The next day, she returned to work at the palace.

Resuming her duties was the easy part, despite Morgana's admonishments that she mustn't push herself too hard. There was a great deal of solace to be found in keeping herself as active as possible – scouring floors, mending dresses, and preparing baths. Her chores gave her a welcome outlet for her pain, a physical release that couldn't be any different than a knight beating a training dummy in order to vent frustrations he couldn't speak aloud.

Part of her desperately wanted to confess the truth, especially when she caught Morgana staring at her with eyes full of worried compassion. Sometimes she had to swallow hard, forcing herself to resist the urge to lay her head on the comforting shoulder she knew so well and cry until she had no tears left to shed. It would be such a relief to pour out the whole sad tale to a sympathetic ear.

But she couldn't allow herself to do it. How would it be possible to explain what had really happened without also revealing Arthur's feelings for her? No, that part of it had to remain a secret, and so the rest would as well.

Morgana pressed her to talk at first, gently probing with questions about her captivity and what type of ill-treatment she might have been subjected to. But she eventually gave up when Gwen remained stubbornly aloof, leaving her alone with a final plea to seek her out when she was ready.

With a great deal of sadness, Gwen knew her secrets were creating a distance between them that had never existed in the past. And then came the realization that Lancelot's choice had not only broken her heart, but had also changed her life forever. People she truly cared about – Morgana, Arthur, and perhaps even Merlin... those relationships would never be quite the same.

Night after night, she lay in bed with tears streaming down her cheeks, struggling to reconcile all the wildly conflicting emotions she fought so hard to suppress during the day. Sometimes she wept simply because she still loved Lancelot, no matter what he'd done to hurt her. Other nights, it was pure, helpless rage that had her sobbing into her pillows, railing at him for punishing her so severely over a betrayal she'd never even committed in the first place.

There were times when she even hated herself for not insisting on telling him how she felt, whether he'd tried to prevent her from speaking or not. Then her fury would be directed at him all over again, because she shouldn't have had to force the issue. He should've given her the benefit of the doubt and asked her for the truth rather than deciding to leave based on mere suspicion.

If he'd loved her so much, how could he have walked away without being absolutely certain of the truth? Why had he made such a devastating choice based on nothing more than assumptions?

That was the part she would never understand.

Late one night, she was startled from her dismal thoughts by a knock on the door.

"Who is it?" she asked cautiously, wrapping a shawl around herself while she attempted to wipe any trace of weeping from her face. "Who's there?"

"Merlin," came a muffled, familiar voice. "Can I come in?"

She hastily lifted the latch and let him inside, attempting a casual smile as she hurried around the room lighting candles and gathering the dishes she'd been too tired to clear away earlier that evening.

"What brings you here so late, Merlin?" she asked in what she hoped was a cheerful voice. "Can I get you anything? Something to eat, maybe?"

"Gwen, stop."

Realizing she had little choice in the matter, at least not without being rude, she reluctantly turned around.

"You've been crying," he said softly, peering down at her face with concerned blue eyes. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing! I just... I had a bad dream, that's all. Nothing to worry about."

"I am worried," he responded, speaking in a voice that was both gentle and exasperated. "That's why I'm here. I've been hoping to catch you during the day and find some time to talk, but Arthur's been keeping me so busy that I haven't had a chance. He's been a foul mood lately, because... well, nevermind. I shouldn't have said that..."

"I told you, Merlin, it's nothing," she said a little more firmly. "And if Arthur's been working you so hard, shouldn't you be in bed right now? You do look tired and..."

He interrupted her with an impatient snort. "Give it up, Gwen. I know exactly what you're trying to do, but I'm not leaving here until you tell me the truth."

She stared at him for a long moment, trying to come up with an explanation he might actually believe. "It's just taking me some time to get over being abducted, that's all," she finally offered. "I was afraid for my life, Merlin. And those awful creatures..."

"It's Lancelot, isn't it?"

The sympathetic tone in his voice, combined with the pain of hearing Lancelot's name spoken aloud for the first time since her return was too much for Gwen to bear. She began to cry, then sobbed harder as she was pulled into an awkward embrace.

"I-I j-just d-don't..." she started, then took a deep breath in an effort to regain control. "I don't understand h-how he could've done it. Because he thought me and A...?" She stopped herself, reluctant to say anything where Arthur's feelings were concerned, even to the man who knew him better than anyone else in the world. "It just doesn't make any sense."

She felt Merlin's chest rise and fall in a heavy sigh.

"Lancelot only makes choices he truly believes are right. You know that better than anyone, Gwen. Whatever he did, he must've felt in his heart that it was for the best."

"And what about the rest of us? He follows his own conscience, and we're just supposed to accept it if we're hurt in the process? How is that fair, Merlin? How is that the right thing to do?"

"I... I can't answer that, Gwen. But I know Lancelot never meant to hurt you. All he's ever wanted was for you to be happy."

Abruptly, she pulled out of his arms, staring up at him with eyes full of resentment. "If that's true, he has an odd way of showing it!"


"I'm sorry, I just... what he did really hurt me. It still hurts. Sometimes I'm afraid it's never going to stop."

He gave her shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. "You don't need to apologize, Gwen. I understand. But trust me, you won't always feel this way. In time, you might even agree it's for the best."

Reluctantly, she nodded, too weary and heartsore to offer any further protest. "Maybe you're right. In the meantime, we should both get some sleep."

He gave her a tired smile in response. "That sounds like a good idea. If you're sure you'll be okay, I'll see you tomorrow."

"I'll be fine," she said in the most reassuring tone she could muster. "Sleep well, Merlin."

"Goodnight, Gwen."

As she crawled back into bed and surrendered to her exhaustion, it was the first time in weeks that she didn't cry herself to sleep. Merlin's visit hadn't healed her broken heart, but at least she felt a little less alone.

Chapter Text

Chapter 49: The Kindness of Strangers

Lancelot didn't make it far on that first day. He'd gone no more than a quarter of a mile before his strength gave out, bringing him to his knees with a soft groan of defeat. It was a useless effort; no matter how hard he struggled to put one foot in front of the other, he just couldn't bring himself to walk away from her.

And yet, he could not stay.

Leaning against the trunk of an ancient oak, he stared dully at the canopy of leaves above his head as he waited to hear sounds of departure in the distance. Letting Gwen and the others do the leaving was the best he could manage; he simply didn't have the will to step forward into the bleak emptiness that lay ahead... not while he could still feel her within his reach.

So close; when he shut his eyes, he remembered how beautiful she'd looked as he'd held her in his arms, her body melding against his so perfectly that it had seemed as if she'd been designed by the fates to be there. The memory of her lips, sweetly eager as they'd sought his kisses was maddening, setting his body to aching with an unsatisfied need that was stronger than any craving he'd ever known.

Lancelot had always been in love with Gwen, right from the first moment he'd laid eyes on the shy, smiling girl in the yellow dress. But now, it had become something so much more. He needed her.

That was the change that had happened when he'd found her again, a feeling that had only grown stronger when she'd healed his heart and restored his faith in himself with nothing more than a few gentle words.

He needed her like the air that filled his lungs, the food that gave him strength, and the water that quenched his thirst. During his years of solitude, she'd been like a dream to him, a comforting ideal that had brought him solace in times of loneliness and despair. But when that dream had turned into reality, she'd somehow become part of his soul, as vital to his existence as the heart beating in his chest and the blood pumping through his veins.

And upon that realization, he was certain that losing her would be the death of him.

His muscles tensed, thrumming with restless energy, as a single thought repeated itself over and over in his mind. It's not too late, the voice inside him whispered. Not yet. You can still put a stop to this.

He clenched his fists and didn't move.

The minutes passed with an agonizing slowness, but just as it seemed as if the heavy, foreboding silence might go on forever, a horse's whinny echoed through the trees. And then his stomach twisted in knots as he felt the faint patter of hooves vibrating the ground beneath his body.

Unbidden, a desperate cry rose in his throat and lingered there, despite his valiant attempts to stifle both the thought and the sound. One word... a single word, and he could put an end to the awful feeling of severing that already ached with such fierce intensity that he could hardly breathe through the pain.

One word, shouted into the quiet forest, and they'd still be able to hear his call. They'd stop, and feet that felt as heavy as anvils would transform into the feathers of a bird, as if the gentle breeze itself was a benevolent force that merely waited for just such an opportunity to guide him back to the place where he belonged.

But when the word came, it emerged as nothing more than a shaky whisper.


And then they were gone.

Lancelot would never know how many hours he sat there in the aftermath, broken and heartsick. All he'd remember was the terrible, hollow stillness that had surrounded him, an impenetrable void that allowed no awareness of any sensation beyond his own misery.

The sun was low in the sky when he finally rose to his feet and walked back to the deserted campsite, only recognizable now by the distinctive pattern of exposed tree roots he'd noticed on the ground the night before. He didn't know what he'd been hoping to find, other than something tangible – a scrap of purple silk, perhaps a few tendrils of hair, anything he might still be able to touch that had once been part of her.

Unfortunately, Arthur was far too skilled at camouflaging any sign of his passage from potential enemies. He'd left nothing in their wake, not so much as a single footprint or a bit of charred wood from the campfire that had burned so cheerily the night before.

The stinging bite of late autumn crept into the air as the sun settled beneath the horizon, casting the forest into black silence. Lancelot lay shivering on the cold, hard ground, lacking the will to rise and build a fire for warmth and comfort. It would've been a useless effort anyway, he realized, when the first ominous roll of thunder sounded in the distance.

When the rain came, a frigid, merciless downpour that set him to trembling so violently that he bit his tongue and tasted blood, he began to weep. He didn't even feel it coming, not until his chest was already heaving with gulping sobs that he couldn't seem to hold in check.

It wasn't only his heartbreak over Gwen that summoned forth the anguished tears, but also the pain of a grieving boy who'd found himself alone in the world so many years before, robbed of the only sense of love or security he'd ever known. Grotesque images assailed his mind, resurrected from his subconscious by the memory of the last time he'd permitted himself to weep so shamelessly. It had been the only other moment in his life when he'd truly known what it was like to lose everything.

For the first time since his village had been attacked, he allowed himself to relive every detail of the assault, forcing himself to face visions of brutality he'd struggled for most of his life to avoid. He didn't know exactly why he did it, only that there was some important answer to be found there to a question he didn't even know how to ask. It gnawed at him with vicious intent, seeming to echo in every ragged sob that wracked his exhausted body.


They'd been having breakfast, Lancelot remembered, surprised that even the smallest details were still vivid in his memory. He saw himself devouring a steaming bowl of porridge and stewed apples, listening quietly to his father and mother as they'd quibbled over the little brother or sister he'd never had a chance to know. Strong, work roughened hands had covered the gentle swell of his mother's belly, caressing it tenderly as she'd turned her head to place a soft kiss against her husband's stubbled jaw.

"It'll be a boy," she'd insisted with a smile. "Another strong son to help you in the fields."

"Why do we need another son, when the one we already have is as fine a lad as we could ever hope for?" his father had responded, pausing to give Lancelot an affectionate pat on the head. "No, it will be a daughter, as sweet and pretty as her mother."

"But..." his mother had started, and then she'd trailed off abruptly as the frantic pounding of horses' hooves had shattered the quiet of their peaceful village.

There had been a scream, high pitched and terrified, followed by a vicious, guttural shout and a heavy thud. The acrid odor of smoke had filled the air, followed by a second cry of fear that had choked off into a gurgle of agony.

Lancelot had stared fearfully at his mother, who'd been clinging to his father's arm so tightly that blood had welled from beneath her fingernails. His father had never seemed to notice the scratches, however, prying her fingers loose in a gesture that was almost violent in its urgency.

"You cannot go out there!" she'd pleaded desperately, staring at him in horror as he'd reached under the bed and retrieved an ancient, slightly rusty sword that lay encased in a battered scabbard. "You're not a soldier! Good lord, they'll kill you!"

His father had wiped the dust from the damaged leather, then buckled it around his waist as he'd opened the door that led to the chaos that lay beyond. "My love," he'd said softly, his voice filled with steely determination. "I don't see any soldiers coming to rescue us, do you? Stay here and take care of the boy."

But remaining inside, surrounded by the illusion of safety that was offered by solid walls, had soon become impossible as a torch had been set to its thatched roof. His mother had pushed him through an open window at the back of the cottage, then squeezed through herself, gasping in frustration as she'd struggled against the mound of her pregnant belly.

"The forest," she'd cried breathlessly. "Run for the forest!"

But Lancelot hadn't run. Instead, he'd stopped dead in his tracks, frozen in horror as his innocent young eyes had taken in the brutal scene. Everywhere there had been blood, smoke, fire, and chaos, narrow dirt pathways strewn with the bodies of villagers he'd known since birth. Some had lain still and undisturbed, but others had moaned and sobbed, clutching gaping wounds as they'd writhed on the ground.

"Run, Lancelot!" his mother had shouted again, but it had been too late. Even as he'd found his feet and turned to flee, the alarm had been sounded.

"There! Get those two!"

It had been the cruel edge to the strange man's voice that had finally spurred him into motion, and the desperation in his mother's pleas had urged him to continue running long after she'd dropped his hand and fallen behind.

"Run..." she'd panted, her words growing ever more distant at his back. "Hide... do not come out until..." and then she'd fallen silent.

Her lifeless body had been the first sight that had greeted his eyes when he'd finally returned to the deathly silent ruins of his former village. He'd found her sprawled just a few steps from the forest's edge, brown eyes staring blankly at the evening sky above her.

If he hadn't hesitated... if only he'd found his courage a little sooner and run like she'd told him to do, she would have survived. Upon that realization, everything inside him had changed… for the first time in his life, he'd known what it was to hate himself.

He'd pressed his face against her unmoving chest and wept piteously, wishing he could feel the comforting embrace of arms that no longer had the ability to cradle a frightened child and soothe away his distress. "I'm sorry," he'd cried, lost, broken, and utterly alone. "I'm sorry, please..."

The old cobbler had found him there, startling him by laying a gentle hand on his shaking back. Lancelot had looked up at him with anguished eyes, whispering the only words he'd known how to say.

"I killed her. I killed my mother."

"The raiders killed your mother," the elderly man had contradicted, gazing down at the still form with a face full of sadness. "Unless you were the one who fired those arrows, you can't be held responsible for her death. Don't make this more tragic than it already is by carrying that burden upon your young shoulders. She wouldn't have wanted that."

There had been few survivors left among the smoking ruins, surveying the destruction of their homes and families with eyes full of hollow devastation. With a last, faint tendril of hope, Lancelot had searched their faces, even as he'd known deep in his heart that he wouldn't find the one he was looking for.

Two days later, after burying their dead in solemn silence, the others had departed to take shelter with relatives or friends in neighboring villages. Lancelot alone had remained, having had nowhere else to go. It had only been when the old cobbler had returned to salvage the last of his damaged belongings that he'd discovered the young boy seated beside his parents' graves, clinging tightly to the rusty old sword that had once belonged to his father.

Lancelot had carried just one other thing when he'd been invited to live with the man and his brother in the next village over, clutched firmly in his little fist on that night and for many nights thereafter. His mother's necklace had remained his most prized possession… until the day he'd ridden away from Camelot and left it in the keeping of the only other woman he'd ever loved.

Why? The question echoed in his mind again, only this time, he understood exactly what it was he was asking of himself. Why had he sacrificed any hope of a future with Gwen, knowing it might still be within his reach? Why did he feel so unworthy… of her, and of everything else he'd ever wanted?

He still didn't have an clear answer, only memories of that dry eyed, determined boy who'd trained relentlessly with his father's sword, swearing he'd make amends for his own part in his mother's tragic death by devoting his life to the protection of others. And in all the years thereafter, he'd spent every waking moment searching for an absolution he'd never quite been able to find.

His guilt hadn't been soothed through his failed quest for knighthood, nor had it been comforted when he'd ridden down the Griffin, only succeeding with the strength of Merlin's magic behind him. His heart had sought relief through his valiant attempts to rescue Gwen from Hengist's clutches, but even that had been for nothing. Only Merlin and Arthur's timely intrusion had saved them both from certain death.

If just once, he'd managed to prove himself as a worthy protector, perhaps it might have all been different. Maybe he would've been able to trust himself with her, to find something of value that he had to offer, even when comparing himself to a man like Arthur.

Alas, he had not.

Lancelot awoke in the cold light of morning to discover he was burning with fever, his chest aching for a different reason than it had the night before. He turned weakly onto his side, curling in around himself as his body heaved with dry, racking coughs.

It took him nearly an hour to summon up the strength to rise, but he knew he was desperately ill and couldn't hope to last long without protection from the elements. He needed water, food, and shelter as quickly as possible.

Part of him wondered why he was even trying as he stumbled through the seemingly endless forest, pausing again and again to double over in fits of coughing that soon became so violent that they drove him to his knees. When the aching of his famished, fever weakened body became unbearable, he even collapsed several times, with every intention of closing his eyes and allowing himself to die right where he lay.

But something always compelled him to rise and continue onward, and after what might have just as easily been a matter of hours or days, he came upon a small village.

He was leaning against a wooden post just outside the inn, swaying on his feet as he fumbled in his pocket for the small sack of coins he'd received at Hengist's fortress, when the attack came. His senses were too dulled by illness to detect the men as they snuck up behind him, until without warning, a heavy club slammed into his back and knocked him to the ground.

Struggling to breathe through another fit of painful coughing, he failed twice in his feeble attempts to push himself up on shaking arms, before finally managing to rise on hands and knees.

And then he was down again, flattened by a savage kick to the midsection as the pair of bandits cackled gleefully and continued to pummel his weak, feverish body. He sputtered, spitting out a mouthful of dirt, then rolled onto his back and lay there without further struggle, trembling with pain and exhaustion as he waited for the death blow.

It never came.

Instead, the first assailant suddenly flew backward, landing with a such a heavy thud that it vibrated the ground beneath his prone body. The second bandit challenged the newcomer, raising his heavy club above his head and racing forward with a shout of fury. His violent charge was met with a merry chuckle as the dark haired man swerved gracefully out of the way, then spun around and unsheathed a sword in one swift motion, driving it deep into the bandit's fleshy back.

He fell with a grunt of surprise, convulsed twice, and then lay still.

The man retrieved his weapon and returned it to its scabbard, then cleared his throat and gave Lancelot a somewhat awkward grin. "Sorry about that," he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the unmoving bodies. "I meant to make them apologize before I killed them, but I guess I get a little carried away with myself sometimes."

Lancelot stared at him in bewilderment. "What?"

"Nevermind all that," his rescuer responded hastily, leaning over to peer at his face with a great deal of concern. "You all right? No, of course you're not. Stupid question, eh? Come on, let me help you inside."

He slid his hands beneath Lancelot's shoulders and lifted him effortlessly to his feet, holding him steady as he doubled over in another fit of violent coughing. Patiently, he waited for the episode to pass, and for a moment, Lancelot was quite sure he'd felt a comforting pat on his back.

"Better then?"

"Y-yes," Lancelot replied in a shaky voice. "T-thank you. M-my name is Lancelot."

The other man opened the door to the tavern, pausing to flick a lock of thick brown hair out of his eyes before he spoke.


Chapter Text

Chapter 50: Recuperation

Gwaine was quite sure that the man named Lancelot was dying. Even with strong arms supporting him, he barely had the strength to make it up the stairs, struggling to breathe every step of the way.

When they finally reached their destination, Gwaine helped him remove his damp clothing, and then he collapsed heavily onto the bed, spasming weakly beneath an endless succession of dry, wracking coughs that shook him so forcefully it seemed as if that alone would finish him off.

And yet, it didn't. He stared up at Gwaine with feverish eyes, then mumbled something unintelligible, feebly shaking his head as his chest began to heave again.

"Don't try to talk," Gwaine told him shortly, feeling his heart twist in sympathy as he studied the expression of pure, exhausted suffering on the sick man's face. "Rest. I'll go downstairs and find you something to eat."

When he'd made his way back outside, he retrieved the bag of coins the bandits had stolen, then decided to help himself to the rest of their gold on Lancelot's behalf. He figured it was the least they could do under the circumstances, scowling to himself at the sheer cowardice involved in attacking such a helpless man.

By the time he returned a short time later, carrying a steaming bowl of stew, water and strong ale, Lancelot was already unconscious. Gwaine stared at him uncertainly, wondering whether he should try to get some food into him, or leave him to the rest he obviously needed. He tried to think back to the times he'd taken ill as a child, but couldn't seem to remember anything beyond the foul tasting potions his vile beast of a sister had enjoyed forcing down his throat.

Finally, after sampling the rich stew and deciding it was too good to miss, he shook Lancelot's shoulder, grinning apologetically as the man opened his eyes with a weary, frustrated groan.

"Sorry," he murmured, slipping an arm beneath his head to support him before holding the spoon to his mouth. "But if you don't go ahead and eat some of this, I'll be finishing it myself. And I imagine you need it far worse than I do."

In the end, Lancelot managed to swallow only a few sips of broth, before he turned his head away and lost consciousness again. Gwaine gazed at him helplessly as he lowered him back onto the pillows, asking himself what the hell he was supposed to do to help the man. He wasn't a physician, nor could he hope to find one in such a small village. Lancelot was sure to die under his own clumsy care, and he didn't exactly relish the thought of how terrible he'd feel if that happened.

As the hours passed, Lancelot's slumber grew more fitful. He tossed and turned restlessly, violent spasms of coughing interspersed with fretful mutterings that were indistinguishable at first, then became louder and more frantic as the fever burned through his body.

Not knowing what else to do, Gwaine tore a threadbare sheet into pieces, dipping them in the pitcher of cool water beside the bed, before laying them across Lancelot's hot, parched skin.

"Gwen... keep up the pretense," the sick man insisted in a harsh, raspy voice. "Gwen..."

Gwaine thought it was his own name Lancelot kept repeating at first, until it became clear that it was a woman he was speaking of. "Guinevere," he whispered brokenly. "Gwen."

There was little clarity to the feverish ravings as they continued, but Gwaine heard enough to gather that Lancelot had lost someone dear to him, though it was impossible to figure out how or why. There were mumblings about sacrifice, of doing the right thing, and even a wild succession of anguished words that spoke of her as a queen.

He mumbled about dreams of glory and honor, of painful failures and shattered hopes, and all with what was perhaps the most humble demeanor Gwaine had ever encountered in another person. He spoke of himself as practically nothing, while elevating the names he called out to the status of royalty and beyond.

Gwaine murmured soothing words as he tried in vain to bring his fever under control, hoping to quiet him down. It seemed like an invasion of privacy to be hearing so many intimate secrets, painful, deeply personal things that were far beyond his right to know. But he had little choice in the matter, and after a while, his curiosity got the better of him.

"Guinevere," Lancelot moaned again. "Guinevere... gone."

"Where did she go?" Gwaine asked, unable to help himself. He'd always loved to talk, finding it difficult to resist taking part in any conversation that occurred in his presence. It seemed increasingly irrelevant that other person involved in this one happened to be delirious with fever.

"Gone. She's gone."

Gwaine frowned. If nothing else, it suddenly occurred to him that he should notify someone about the man's condition, even though it might be too late to do any good.

"Where?" he prodded again.

Lancelot coughed violently in response, then fell silent. When the word finally came, it was no more than a barely audible sigh. "Camelot."

"Camelot?" Gwaine questioned patiently. "Is that where you're from?"

"Camelot. Once... no more. Lost."

"You're lost? Well, there's help for that, my friend. Just get yourself better, and I'm sure you'll make it home. I'll take you there myself if you like."

Lancelot's haggard, unconscious face twisted in confusion. "No," he mumbled. "Not Camelot. Not home. I lied."

Gwaine chuckled outright at that. He'd never heard of a man telling lies while in a fever, and couldn't help being amused at the guilty tone in Lancelot's voice.

"Don't want to tell me then?" he said with a small grin. "Fair enough. I just wanted to know where to find your people. Thought I'd send word so they know where to find you."

"People? Merlin... I promised..."

"Promised what?"

"Promised... but not Gwen. Mustn't know. Not Arthur. No, it's too dangerous. Secret."

Gwaine stared at him intently, trying to make sense of the tangled direction of his feverish thoughts. "Secret?" he asked curiously.

"The magic," Lancelot whispered anxiously. "Killed the Griffin. Wasn't me. Cannot stay. Gwen... some things... I could not stay. Arthur... Merlin, I'll never tell. Magic. I'll never tell."

"What magic? What does that mean?"

"Never," Lancelot repeated stubbornly, feebly shaking his head as he began to cough again. He shifted weakly onto his side, presenting Gwaine with his bare back before drifting off into a deeper slumber.

"Fair enough," Gwaine said again, laughing quietly at the obvious dismissal.

Gwaine didn't remember falling asleep. He'd rested his head against the back of the chair for no more than a couple seconds and the next thing he knew, bright morning sunlight was shining through the window. His frantic gaze shifted immediately to the bed, panic rising in his throat as he studied Lancelot's unnaturally pale face, colorless aside from the black smudges beneath his tightly closed eyes.

He looked like a corpse as he lay there unmoving, an image that wasn't helped by the fact that his body was already wasted by sickness, nor by the numerous bruises and angry red lacerations that colored his chalky skin.

I tried, Gwaine thought with sad resignation. He reached out to lay a hand on Lancelot's chest to confirm his suspicions, when his eyes suddenly detected the shallow rise and fall of a breath being drawn. Relief filled his heart, and he smiled.

"Stronger than you look, I'll give you that," he said almost cheerfully to the sleeping man.

Later that morning, Gwaine headed downstairs to the tavern, determined to find some way to help Lancelot beyond his own clumsy efforts. The barmaid was resistant to his questions at first, but he was easily able to maneuver around that small obstacle with nothing more than a charming smile and a well-timed compliment.

The healer she mentioned, an ancient, bearded man with a toothless scowl, was not so easily persuaded. He haughtily informed Gwaine that his services were only for the local villagers, and did not extend to the riffraff that frequented "that miserable inn." All of Gwaine's flattery and clever words were for nothing; he remained stubbornly aloof until a hefty amount of gold crossed his wrinkled palm.

Despite his surly nature, however, the elderly man soon proved to be a skillful healer. He clucked disapprovingly to himself as he examined Lancelot from head to toe, pausing every so often to shoot a baleful glance in Gwaine's direction, as if he was personally responsible for the man's pitiful condition.

With Lancelot, on the other hand, the old healer's manner was gentle, almost tender. He murmured soothing words as he bathed the injuries, carefully smearing them with pungent smelling paste before applying clean bandages. After laying his head against Lancelot's chest for a few seconds, he nodded sagely, then opened his satchel and retrieved a vial of murky liquid.

"What are you doing?" Gwaine asked him skeptically, unwilling to trust much of anything that came in potion form. "What is that?"

The elderly man turned, freezing him to the core with his pale blue stare. "What do you think it is, fool? If I'm not mistaken, you paid me to come up here and save this man's life. If you'd shut your yap and stop distracting me, that's exactly what I intend to do."

Gwaine frowned, unnerved by the open hostility. "You're sure it won't hurt him?"

His question was met with an exasperated sigh. "Bloody hell," the healer swore half to himself, urging Lancelot's mouth open with a practiced finger. "Far more tolerable when they're dying than when they're healthy, that's for sure."

Lancelot choked as the first few drops of the draught slid down his throat, but just as Gwaine made to intervene, he noticed with a great deal of surprise that his breathing was a little less labored than it had been before. His bandaged chest rose and fell more evenly, and it even seemed as if a bit of color had crept back into his wan face.

"Thank you," Gwaine said gratefully, extending a helpful hand as the old man packed his supplies away and began to struggle to his feet. "He already seems much better."

"Shows what you know," came the sharp retort, as the well-meaning gesture was pointedly ignored. "Your friend will be needing several more doses before there's even the smallest chance of clearing the infection from his lungs. Every two hours. And if you don't want him dead anyway, I suggest you get some food in him as well. Water, too."

Despite the healer's last, dubious look at Lancelot before he left the room, his condition began to improve rapidly soon thereafter. His skin was much cooler to the touch, and he slept peacefully throughout the rest of the afternoon. When Gwaine went downstairs to retrieve supper, he was surprised upon his return to find a fully awake Lancelot staring at him with an expression of mild confusion.

"Y-you?" he questioned tentatively, in a voice that was still raspy, yet stronger than it had been the previous night. "I'm not dead?"

And then he fell silent like he was embarrassed by the question, probably because the answer was blatantly obvious. His discomfort became even more apparent as he glanced down at his naked, bandaged body, then cleared his throat awkwardly as he reached for a blanket to cover himself.

"No, you're not dead," Gwaine said with a satisfied grin as he set down the tray of food. "Doing much better from what I can see. You hungry?"

Lancelot nodded.

"I can't even begin to thank you for all your kindness," Lancelot told Gwaine a few days later, the sincerity in his voice mingled with a touch of disbelief. "If there's any way I can repay you..."

Gwaine studied the other man over the rim of his tankard. He was still too thin and probably a bit more pale than he should've been. His body was obviously weakened by the illness he'd suffered, and he was still plagued the occasional coughing fit during the night. But he was getting stronger by the day, and had even managed to come to the tavern without needing any support as he'd made his way down the stairs.

"You're already repaying me," Gwaine said with a careless grin, hoisting his tankard in the air before taking another long swallow. "Who do you think bought these drinks? Wasn't me, I'll tell you that much."

"Well, it's the least I can do," Lancelot replied, looking a little flustered. "But I don't have anything else to..."

Gwaine interrupted with a quiet chuckle. "I didn't do it because I was expecting something in return. You needed help when I happened to be nearby, so I did what I could for you. It's as simple as that."

"I still owe you..."

"Nothing," Gwaine finished for him. "What I did for you is what I'd hope someone would do for me in the same situation. Nothing more."

Lancelot studied his face for a long moment, and Gwaine saw a flurry of different emotions play across his gaunt features… curiosity, respect, and even something that strongly resembled trust. He felt a little humbled, but it was nowhere near the level of humility he read in the other man's eyes as he murmured his thanks once more.

The unassuming demeanor reminded him of the feverish ravings he'd listened to during that first night, and suddenly, he couldn't help wondering who Lancelot really was inside.

Who was Gwen, and how did Lancelot lose her? What about the other names he'd mentioned, Merlin and Arthur? Why did he seem to feel so much guilt where they were concerned, when he obviously cared for them deeply? And most of all, if he had not just one, but three people to love, what had he been doing alone and friendless, practically dying when Gwaine had intervened on his behalf?

Lancelot was almost well enough to make it on his own, and had the means to get by in the meantime, thanks to the gold that had been pilfered on his behalf. Perhaps Gwaine should simply wish him well and be on his way now that his assistance was no longer needed.

But above all things, he'd always been an insatiably curious man, so he couldn't seem to come up with a good reason as to why he shouldn't stick around a little longer.

"Let's have another drink," he told Lancelot cheerfully, giving him a winning smile.

Chapter Text

Chapter 51: The Wager

Lancelot watched in amazement as Gwaine polished off one tankard of ale after another, seeming unaffected by the tremendous amounts of alcohol he was consuming. He smiled endearingly at the blushing barmaid as he gently teased and then openly flirted with her, only becoming more charming as the hours passed, never less so.

It was only when he rose to his feet that it became obvious how much he'd overindulged. He teetered dangerously, nearly stumbling backward over his chair before Lancelot managed to catch his swaying body and hold him upright.

Lancelot, more than a little tipsy himself and not yet fully recovered from his illness, didn't exactly feel steady either, but he somehow found the strength to help the hysterically laughing man up the stairs and into bed.

"See what I mean?" Gwaine slurred at Lancelot as he kicked off his boots and stretched out on his back. "Everyone needs a little help sometimes. After all, what would I have done if you hadn't been here?"

"I'm sure that barmaid would have taken good care of you," Lancelot countered with a smile.

"True," Gwaine admitted thoughtfully. "But you see my point. I'm just saying that... that... well, nevermind. I'll remember it tomorrow, I'm sure."

Lancelot settled himself gingerly on the cold, hard floor, pulling a threadbare blanket over his shivering body as his eyes drifted closed. Gwaine had insisted upon him taking the bed until he was completely healed, but it seemed that his new friend was far too drunk to notice the difference. Lancelot was glad for it; after all, the man had saved his life. A comfortable place to sleep was the least he deserved in return.

"Who's Gwen?"

Lancelot's eyes flew open in shock. Gwaine, who he'd assumed must be well asleep by then, was leaning over the side of the bed, staring down at him with a guilty, yet inquisitive look on his face.

"What... how would you...?" he trailed off, struggling with the pain of hearing her name spoken aloud when he'd been fighting so hard to keep any thoughts of her at bay. Not that he'd been successful, of course, but having to acknowledge the reality of his loss to another person was something else entirely.

But more importantly, how would Gwaine even know about Gwen in the first place?

As intoxicated as he was, the other man seemed to sense Lancelot's bewildered distress. "Sorry," he said, sounding surprisingly sincere, despite the fact that the word was rather garbled. "You... that first night, I brought you upstairs. You had a fever, and you were calling for her. I just wondered... didn't mean to pry."

Lancelot took a deep breath to steady himself. "She... she's no one," he said, attempting to sound casual. "Why? What did I say?"

"Said you loved her," Gwaine told him, peering down into his face with bleary, yet increasingly curious eyes. With a sinking feeling, Lancelot realized there'd be no easy escape from this particular conversation.

"Well..." he started, feeling flustered. "I was delirious. Doesn't necessarily mean... well, you told that barmaid you loved her, didn't you? I'm quite sure that wasn't the truth."

"Oh, that's where you're wrong, my friend!" Gwaine proclaimed grandly, clapping his hand over his heart with a flourish. "She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, and tomorrow, I have every intention of bringing her upstairs with me. Would have done it tonight, but you've obviously had too much to drink. Didn't want to leave you alone in your shameful condition."

Unable to help himself, Lancelot shook his head in disbelief.

"Don't believe me, eh? Well, tomorrow, you'll see."

Lancelot hated to be unkind, but he wasn't half as drunk as Gwaine was, and remembered what the barmaid had actually looked like. She'd been significantly older than the pair of them, a heavy set, rather dumpy woman with flat brown hair and even flatter breasts. Her face had been extremely plain, with a nose that was far too broad and lips that were so thin they might as well have been nonexistent.

And she'd had hair growing on her upper lip, Lancelot recalled with a shudder. Not just a bit of fuzz, but a thick dusting of whiskers that reminded him of his own stubble when he hadn't been near a razor in a week... or truthfully, more like a month.

"Don't worry," he reassured the drunk man, who was dangling off the side of the bed with a lazy, self-satisfied grin on his face. "By morning I'll forget you ever said that. Hopefully you will, too."

"I'll never forget!" Gwaine insisted passionately, his features twisting into something that might have been a scowl if he hadn't been seconds away from bursting into laughter. "I love... Mary? Was that her name? Suppose it doesn't matter. Tell you what, Lancelot. Since you don't believe me, how about I suggest a little wager?"

Lancelot raised an eyebrow and waited for him to continue.

"If I wake up in the morning and do exactly as I've promised, you have to swear that you'll tell me the truth about Gwen. All of it."

Hearing her name made Lancelot cringe from the inevitable pain all over again, but even so, he stopped and considered the suggestion. As harebrained as the bet seemed, it might give him the opportunity to escape questions he really didn't want to answer... questions Gwaine obviously wasn't going to forget about until his curiosity was satisfied.

"And if you don't?"

"If I don't take her to my bed tomorrow, I'll never mention Gwen again."


"You have my word."

Lancelot awoke with a pounding head and a foul taste in his mouth, surprised and slightly annoyed to find Gwaine staring down at him with bright, energetic eyes. It was obnoxious – not only did the man have the ability to drink like a fish, but he obviously didn't suffer from hangovers either.

"Thought you were going to sleep all day," he remarked with a cheerful grin. "Let's go downstairs and get something to eat. See what's to come of our wager too, eh?"

It was Lancelot who spotted her first, immediately deciding that he'd won the bet right then and there. She hurried over with what appeared to be soot stains all over her ragged dress, grinning up at both of them, but particularly at Gwaine, with a mouth full of crooked, almost rodent like teeth.

"Can I get you anything?" she asked in a thin, reedy voice.

Gwaine swallowed hard and looked a little pale, but just as Lancelot was preparing to congratulate himself on an easy victory, the other man executed a deep, graceful bow, then lifted the barmaid's hand to his lips, placing a lingering kiss against her sausage like fingers.

"One look at your sweet face should be all I need to sustain me," Gwaine declared, looking for all the world as if he were head over heels in love. "But as I am only human, I also need food to fill my belly. And some for my friend here if you don't mind."

A bright red blush spread across the woman's sallow cheeks. She stuttered, then nodded and hurried away to fetch their breakfast.

Lancelot watched incredulously as Gwaine flattered the barmaid with an endless stream of exaggerated compliments throughout the course of their meal. Dingy brown hair became golden shafts of ripened wheat, beady black eyes were likened to precious jewels, and all the while, Lancelot was certain she'd see right through the painfully obvious fabrications and order them out of her tavern.

She didn't.

Instead, she hung on Gwaine's every word, giggling and blushing like a young girl as she swatted at him playfully. Their cups never ran empty, their plates were piled high with sausages and fresh baked bread again and again, all with her insistence that she wouldn't accept a single coin in exchange for the lavish breakfast.

When they had finished, Gwaine rose to his feet and leaned much closer than was necessary to whisper something in her ear. She stumbled backward, looking a little dazed, then stammered something about needing to return their plates to the kitchen. "I-I'll be right back," she promised in a shaky voice. "W-wait here, please."

"You don't really mean to go through with this, do you?" Lancelot muttered under his breath as soon as she was gone.

"Of course I do," Gwaine replied nonchalantly. "Said I would, didn't I?"

Yes, but don't you think it's a little... cruel? I mean...?"

"For me or for her?"

Lancelot frowned, not wanting to be openly insulting where the woman was concerned. "Well, you don't actually want to, do you? And what about her? Isn't it... aren't you giving her the wrong impression by saying all those things?"

Gwaine gave him a surprised look. "What do you mean?"

"She might think you're interested in more than just..."

But it was too late. The barmaid had returned, staring up at Gwaine with a gleam in her small black eyes that reminded Lancelot of a feral dog on the verge of devouring a meaty bone. For a moment, he was afraid she might actually start drooling, but instead, she just giggled and prodded the hapless man toward the staircase.

Gwaine somehow managed to look incredibly amused and downright horrified at the same time. He shot Lancelot an uneasy grin over his shoulder, muttering that he should creep upstairs and press his ear to the door if he needed proof.

And then the oddly mismatched pair was gone.

Lancelot would've never dreamed of eavesdropping on something so private, but as it turned out, there was no need. A few minutes after the door above his head closed with a resounding thud, the ceiling began to vibrate with a steady, rhythmic pounding. He shifted in embarrassment, suddenly deciding he desperately needed a bit of fresh air.

When he returned from his walk over an hour later, there was still no sign of Gwaine. A different barmaid, a sweet-faced young woman with a tangle of yellow curls and soft brown eyes, wandered aimlessly around the tavern, staring up at the ceiling in confusion and then in alarm as the rickety bed gave off a series of loud squeaks that seemed as if they'd never end.

A high-pitched, distinctly animalistic howl echoed through the corridor above, and then all was silent.

Lancelot was just finishing up his second tankard of ale, drinks he'd only ordered to give the bewildered young barmaid something to do other than pace back and forth, when Gwaine finally stumbled down the stairs. His normally smooth brown hair was sticking up in different directions, and his trousers were laced so loosely that they looked as if they might fall off at any second. He seemed dazed at first, until he gave his head a shake and treated Lancelot to an enormous grin.

"I believe I've won our wager," he said with a breathless chuckle. "Several times over, to tell you the truth. And now I need a drink!"

"M- mother?"

Lancelot and Gwaine turned their heads to see the pretty younger woman peering at the older barmaid uncertainly, fluttering her hands as she brought forth a shawl to cover a dress that was ripped to the point of indecency.

"Mother, you should be ashamed of yourself!" she hissed under her breath. "Right in the middle of the day, and loud enough for the entire village to hear you! What were you thinking?!"

The other woman turned to her with a blissful, self-satisfied smile. "Take one look at him and tell me you wouldn't have done the same in my place."

Gwaine was fully prepared when the soft brown eyes fell upon the table again. His mouth turned up in a charming grin, and he winked devilishly at the pair of barmaids. Their reactions were uncannily similar as two sets of cheeks turned pink and they each began to stutter.

"Well..." the younger woman started, then seemed to forget her point as Gwaine practically preened under their avid stares. "Well, nevermind."

"Take over for me, would you? I'm exhausted."

After the older barmaid had left to seek her bed, Gwaine waved the younger one over and ordered a round of drinks. He didn't seem embarrassed by what had transpired; on the contrary, he let out a sigh of contentment as she leaned over the table to serve them, his eyes lingering appreciatively on the swell of her breasts as they strained against the bodice of her too tight gown.

She seemed flustered when she caught the direction of his gaze, but then quickly recovered, giving him a coy smile before walking away with a noticeable swing to her shapely hips.

Gwaine whistled under his breath as he stared after her. "Looks like I picked the wrong one, eh? Well, no reason not to have them both."

"But you... you just finished," Lancelot said, gaping at him incredulously. "Haven't you had enough for now?"

"Ah, it's never enough, my friend," Gwaine responded with a suggestive wink.

"But you just bedded her mother! Even if she would, isn't it a little wrong to... I mean, you can't..." Lancelot trailed off, unsure of whether he should be amused or horrified. The man was completely shameless, but somehow, that only seemed to make him more endearing, not less so.

"Oh, I could," Gwaine said, pausing to take a long swig of ale before continuing. "But I won't. We have more important things to talk about just now, don't you think?"

"I'm not sure what you mean," Lancelot said evasively, knowing exactly what Gwaine was referring to. He cast a surreptitious glance around the nearly empty tavern, realizing there wouldn't be much hope for any delays or distractions in the sleepy room.

Gwaine flashed him a patient smile. "Are you really going to make me say it?"

"No," Lancelot said quietly. "You want to know about Gw... yes, you did win the wager. And I agreed to the terms."

Surprisingly, Gwaine shook his head. "Listen," he murmured almost gently. "I was only joking with you. I can't deny that I'm curious; always been a nosy bastard. But if it's really that hard for you, just tell me to stay out of your business and I will."

Lancelot stared at Gwaine from across the table, feeling as if he was really seeing him for the first time. This was a man who'd saved his life without question when he could have just walked away. He'd been gravely ill and Gwaine had stayed by his side the entire time, making sure he had food, medicine, and proper care rather than abandoning him to his fate.

But most of all, he'd made sure Lancelot wasn't alone during one of the darkest, most frightening times in his life. Was a little truthfulness really so much to ask in return?


Lancelot would have made good on the wager either way, but looking into Gwaine's honest brown eyes, sensing the kind heart and good intentions beneath all the careless bluster, made it infinitely easier to do so.

And then he suddenly realized just how tired he was of being alone. Throughout his life, he'd always walked a solitary path, keeping his deepest fears and most painful heartaches safely locked away. He didn't know why; perhaps it was just his nature to minimize his own suffering for the sake of others, to always view their needs as more important than his own.

But it was different with Gwaine, who didn't seem to need a thing in the world beyond another refill. So without further hesitation, Lancelot took a deep breath and began to speak.

At first he only meant to give a few vague details, explaining that he'd wanted to become a knight only to learn that he couldn't due to the fact that he wasn't a noble, and that he'd met people who'd meant a great deal to him during his time in Camelot. He wanted to rush through what had happened in more recent times, glossing over the reasons he'd lost Gwen as he calmly reassured the other man that it was for the best.

It might have been easily accomplished with anyone else, but Gwaine was entirely too perceptive to be brushed off so easily. He listened quietly as Lancelot spoke, occasionally raising a skeptical eyebrow when he knew he wasn't receiving the full story. And as the hours passed and countless tankards were drained by both men, he seemed to learn more about Lancelot than perhaps he even knew about himself.

Unaccustomed to finding himself so vulnerable in front of another person, Lancelot wanted to blame the alcohol, or even the wager itself for the shameless, brutal honesty he'd never known himself to be capable of. But he knew that wasn't it. Something about Gwaine just compelled him to keep talking until there were no more secrets.

No more, save one that was not his own to tell.

When Gwaine finally spoke again, his voice was quiet and somber. "You've had a rough time of it, my friend," he said. "There's no denying that. But there's a difference between the things we cannot help and those we can."

Lancelot gave him a confused look. "What do you mean?"

Gwaine leaned across the table, softening his next words with a gentle smile.

"I'm saying that you're a bloody fool."

Chapter Text

Chapter 52: Faith Renewed

"A fool?" Lancelot repeated as he stared at Gwaine in shock. There he was, confessing his deepest and most painful secrets, only to be insulted in return? Perhaps he'd misjudged the man.

Gwaine shook his head slightly. "No," he replied, casually flicking a lock of thick brown hair away from his forehead before taking another drink. "I said you were a bloody fool."

"I don't understand..."

"What makes you think this Arthur is a better man than you?" he suddenly burst out, slamming his empty tankard down with a loud thud. "Why do you think you're less worthy than he is? Because he's a noble?"

Lancelot opened his mouth then closed it again, unsure of how to respond. "I..."

Gwaine didn't give him a chance to continue. "From what you're telling me, you spent half your life training to serve him, and all for what? So he could throw it back in your face like you were worthless? And you just..."

"That wasn't Arthur. That was his fa..."

"And you just accepted it. Typical."

"Typical of what, exactly?"

Gwaine leaned forward, meeting him glare for glare. "It's no wonder these royals are able to convince so many soldiers to die for their foolishness. They pretend it's an honor for men to sacrifice their lives, and to make matters worse, commoners are even rejected as not being good enough? That's what's typical. They lead you to believe they're the one granting you a favor, not the other way around. And you swallowed all that horseshit."

"Even if the code was wrong, it doesn't change the fact that I lied."

"Yes, it does. How can you fault yourself for trying to correct an injustice? If I was mad enough to actually want to become a knight and found myself that sort of position, I would've done the same damn thing. Fortunately, I'm not."

"I know the code wasn't fair. I know I had good intentions, regardless of my methods. But…"

Gwaine raised an eyebrow, searching his face so intently that Lancelot shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Do you?"

"Of course I do."

"I'm not so sure about that. Years later, and you're still walking around believing you're unworthy. You still seem to think that these men, this Arthur, are better than you. Why?"

"You don't know Arthur," Lancelot said firmly, avoiding Gwaine's penetrating stare as he traced his finger around a ring of condensation on the table. "It isn't just his position. He has a noble heart. He's fair and treats all men as equals. He's going to be a great king someday."

"Even if that's true, which I seriously doubt, that still doesn't answer my question. What makes him better than you?"

"I... it's hard to explain. You wouldn't understand. You just... you'd have to know him."

"You're right," Gwaine said stiffly. "I wouldn't understand. I never understood why my father blindly swore allegiance to King Caerleon either. Paid his taxes, fought in his battles, spent his whole life serving the crown, and for what? To die on the point of a sword over a petty border dispute? That's what knighthood is... helping men with too much gold and power get exactly what they want. All for the sake of a lot of pretty words about honor and justice that mean nothing."

"I'm sorry," Lancelot said quietly. "I didn't know."

Gwaine's face softened a little, but he wasn't finished. "As for honor," he muttered with a slightly bitter edge to his voice. "Caerleon refused to grant my mother assistance when she begged for his help. We had nothing left, you see; it was all spent on taxes, or tributes to the Crown. Does that sound like an honorable pursuit to you? Sacrificing yourself and everything you have on behalf of a king who would allow your wife and two young children to linger in poverty?"

"No. But they can't all be like that. Arthur..."

"Never met one who wasn't, but it's not for me to change your mind. Still, that doesn't explain why you'd give up this woman you love for his sake. Even my father wouldn't have done that, and I've never known a man who could match him for loyalty or devotion."

Lancelot closed his eyes and took a deep breath before responding. "I didn't do it for his sake. I did it for hers."

"So you find her again after all this time. You still love her, she still loves you. You rescue her from a terrible fate... all right, so you had help with that," Gwaine added, practically rolling his eyes when Lancelot opened his mouth to protest. "Either way, everyone's safe. You notice the prince seems to have feelings for your Gwen, so you decide to give her up. Have I got that right?"

A slight nod was all Lancelot could manage. Why did it sound so different from Gwaine's perspective?

"Did she tell you she preferred Arthur?"

Lancelot shook his head.

"Did she ever say she didn't want to be with you?"

"No," he whispered.

"Did you decide you didn't want to be with her after all? Thought you could dump her off on Arthur and be well rid of her?"

Lancelot bolted to his feet, reaching instinctively for his sword before realizing he'd left it upstairs. His hands clenched into fists instead as he glared down at Gwaine, his dark eyes burning with fury.

"How dare you? She... I... you can't possibly imagine how difficult it was for me to..."

Gwaine remained in his chair, infuriatingly unperturbed by the outburst. "Sit back down," he said casually, waving a lazy hand at the other side of the table. "It was only a question. No harm intended."

"I'm sorry, I just..."

"She meant a great deal to you. Kind of figured that. But that's what makes this so difficult to understand. If you truly loved her, why desert her the way you did? It's obviously made you miserable, and I'm sure it wasn't exactly enjoyable for her either. So why...?"

"She'll have a better life with Arthur," Lancelot said dully. "He can give her comfort, security, protection. She could be queen someday. I don't have it in my power to give her all the things he can."

"And how do you know that's the life she even wants? Has she ever said so?"

"No... but, well, why wouldn't she?"

"Well, let's see," Gwaine said, his brow wrinkling in mock thoughtfulness. "She might not care for material things the way you seem to believe she should. She might prefer a life of freedom, even if it's a simpler one, over the endless rules and protocol of court life. She might feel nothing for this Prince Arthur, or he might decide not to marry her after all. There are any number of reasons she might want a different life than the one you've chosen for her."

"I didn't choose it for her. I merely gave her a chance at happiness."

"A chance she didn't ask for? With a man she never said she wanted?"

"Yes... I mean, no. I just... it's not that simple."

"Very honorable of you," Gwaine commented, not bothering to hide the edge of sarcasm in his voice. "Not allowing a woman to think for herself is undoubtedly the best way to ensure her happiness."

Lancelot's intoxicated mind was a jumble of confusion. All his best arguments were falling flat under Gwaine's scrutiny, only seeming to make less sense the more he tried to explain himself. The alcohol must have been responsible for that, because surely he'd done the right thing... hadn't he? Yes, of course he had. He had to believe that, if for no other reason than the alternative was unthinkable.

"It was honorable," he insisted firmly. "How will she ever know what she's truly worth if she's not given the chance to see it for herself? I would've only held her back."

"Aha!" Gwaine said, his face breaking into a knowing grin. "We're back to the subject of worth, which is really what this is all about. Forgive me for saying so, friend, but it seems to me that the only person who doesn't understand their own worth is sitting right in front of me."

Lancelot struggled with that assessment for a few minutes, unable to think of a suitable reply.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," the pretty young barmaid who'd been refilling their drinks all night said timidly. "I really must close up now. It's well after midnight, and..."

"Forgive us," Gwaine replied, flashing her a charming smile. "Here, take a little something extra for your trouble."

As Lancelot watched in horror, the other man tossed the last of their dwindling supply of coins on her empty tray.

"What are we supposed to do now?" he questioned the following morning, then clutched his aching head as his voice echoed so loudly it seemed as if it would split his skull in two. If nothing else, at least being out of gold meant they didn't have means to acquire any more drinks.

Gwaine turned from the window where he'd been admiring the morning sunshine, as chipper as he always was after a night of heavy drinking.

"About what?"

"We're out of money," Lancelot pointed out much more quietly. "We obviously can't continue to stay here without the means to pay."

"Oh, that," Gwaine said nonchalantly. "I was thinking it was time to move on anyway. We'll find a way to make more wherever we go, I'm sure. No need to worry."

Lancelot couldn't understand how he could be so cavalier about it, remembering his own months of struggle and starvation all too clearly. The only way he'd ever managed to earn money for himself had been in the cage, and he'd sworn during his time with Gwen that he'd never allow himself to return to such a dishonorable pursuit.

But if he couldn't fight, what else could he do?

It had been his greatest struggle since he'd left Camelot years before, but traveling with Gwaine soon proved to be quite different than all of his previous experience. They bid farewell to the tiny village, and by the time they reached the next settlement the following day, the surprisingly resourceful man had already arranged work for them both.

As the weeks passed, he never seemed to run out of new and interesting ways to earn a bit of gold. He offered their services to local farmers and tradesmen, but unlike Lancelot, who'd approached such positions desperate and empty-handed only to be turned away, Gwaine had an uncanny way of convincing the very same people that he was doing them a favor by agreeing to work for them.

Sometimes they mended fences or broken buildings. On other occasions, they helped harvest crops or herd animals. There were times when Gwaine would convince the more well-to-do merchants they needed additional protection while transporting their wares, and others where he even managed to gain their trust enough to help sell the merchandise himself, taking a previously agreed upon share of the profit in exchange.

These were the most ideal arrangements, as Gwaine was able to part with an amazing amount of merchandise in exchange for a few charming smiles and well-chosen words. Several merchants even offered him a permanent position, but he always graciously declined. As Lancelot quickly learned, Gwaine was a wanderer, preferring never to remain in one place for long.

They never actually discussed their unspoken agreement to travel together. It just happened that way, and though neither man chose to say so, it was understood that each was grateful for the other's company.

Dear Merlin, Lancelot wrote on a clean sheet of parchment, smiling as he always did when he thought of his friend.

Thank you for your last letter. I must admit that I've never encountered a troll, nor do I believe I'd want to. I'm relieved to hear that everything worked out in the end. Perhaps someday, you can tell me exactly how that happened, but I know there are some things that are not suitable to communicate by missive.

Lancelot paused, scrutinizing the words he'd just written to ensure there wasn't even a trace of a hint that alluded to Merlin's magic, of which he was quite certain had been utilized in order to dispose of the dreadful troll. He chuckled softly, picturing a besotted Uther gazing rapturously at the foul creature.

I am quite well, thank you for asking. Yes, my companion and I are traveling north now that summer is upon us. We stopped off here in Gawant to work as temporary laborers during the planting season, but as you've surely noticed by now, we never remain in one place for long. I enjoy having the chance to see so many beautiful locations, but I must admit I often long to sleep in the same bed each night.

Nonetheless, I suppose I can't complain.

Yes, I do think about returning to Camelot someday, but I don't think it would be the wisest idea just yet. We both know why, and I think we also understand that it's for the best that I stay away until a considerable amount of time has passed. Though I'd welcome the chance to see you, I'd never wish to cause any conflict.

Still, I'll always cherish Camelot in my heart as the closest place to home I've ever known. For now, that is enough of a comfort for me.

Be well, Merlin. I'll send you the means to contact me at my next location as soon as I can.

Please give Gwen my best.

Lancelot read the final line he'd written unthinkingly, then cringed and carefully traced over the name.

Please give Gaius my best.

He examined the swiftly drying ink, frowning as he realized Merlin would see exactly what he'd done. And then he shook his head in resignation and sealed the parchment anyway. They might not speak of it directly, but Merlin was well aware of his feelings. He'd understand.

Lancelot rolled his eyes as the sound of Gwaine's enthusiastic grunts reached him through the thin walls of the workman's quarters where they'd been staying over the previous few weeks. He couldn't be sure whether it was the farmer's daughter tonight, or one of the milkmaids; he'd quickly learned it was impossible to keep up with Gwaine's seemingly endless conquests.

Rather than speculating further on the matter, he stepped outside and breathed deeply of the warm summer air, gazing up at the stars as he often liked to do before bed.

And then as always, he thought of her.

Though they'd never spoken of it again, Lancelot had found himself haunted by Gwaine's rather merciless assessment of his actions. Had he truly done the right thing? He wasn't so sure anymore. It had been so easy to feel hopeless, as if he'd had nothing to offer, when he'd been nothing more than a mercenary fighter who'd had nothing to look forward to aside from degradation and brutality from the life he'd chosen.

But his world was entirely different without the constant reality of meaningless violence, living free of shame and dishonor. Thanks to Gwaine, he'd learned any number of honest ways to secure an income, and was even starting to accumulate a small amount of savings for himself. And more than that, he enjoyed the work. It might not be the pure, instinctual feeling of rightness that came to him in combat, but the simple act of losing himself in any sort of physical labor carried its own sense of satisfaction.

Sometimes when his mind drifted in the midst of some menial task, he'd picture their life together as it might've been. He'd see himself working hard, painstakingly saving his earnings for a place they might have been able to share together. His heart would grow warm as he thought of coming home to her lovely face every evening, his weariness melting away as he took her in his arms.

These daydreams felt so natural, to the point where he sometimes forgot all the reasons he'd had for leaving her in the first place. The only thing that seemed to jar him back to reality anymore was the fact that he had, and whether it had been the right decision or not, he couldn't change it now. He had no choice but to accept what he'd done, to stand aside and allow her to move on with her life.

But as his spirit healed and life became more stable, it was increasingly difficult to believe that the future he dreamed of was as impossible as it had once seemed. As shame, uncertainty, and despair faded away, the last remnants of the previously violent and unpredictable life he'd led before, much of his persistent self-doubt was gradually replaced by a more hopeful outlook, a renewed belief that the days to come could indeed lead to better things.

Nothing was certain, he realized. Just like the crescent moon that captivated his gaze as he stared up at the starry sky, all things would wax and wane as they were meant to do. Yes, perhaps he'd made what seemed like a permanent decision, but was the future he'd envisioned for Gwen any guarantee? So many things in life could change in a single moment... perhaps it had been arrogant on his part to believe that the future had been his own to determine.

If it was Gwen's fate to marry Arthur and become Queen of Camelot, it would surely come to pass. But if that wasn't the case after all, maybe the fates would lead him back to her someday. That belief became enough to sustain him – a simple, quiet certainty that if he could only be patient, the answers would be revealed in due time.

In the meantime, it was this sense of faith that helped him suppress the increasingly frequent desire to write to Gwen and tell her what was truly in his heart... the haunting fear that the choice he'd made had been terribly, terribly wrong.

Chapter Text

Chapter 53: Truth Behind Denial

"Is that him?" Gwen murmured as she joined Morgana at the chamber window.


The man known as the Witchfinder stood like a sentinel in the deserted street, a stately, black clad figure with a proud tilt to his head and a hard, uncompromising expression on his weathered face. Gwen felt a chill in the pit of her stomach as she looked beyond him to the sinister wagon that had marked his arrival in Camelot.

"What's that cage for?"

Morgana was trembling beside her and indeed, it felt as if the temperature of the warm summer night had plummeted in the very same moment the man had set foot into the peaceful city.

"It hardly bears thinking about," she whispered fearfully.

Gwen bit her lip as they watched the Witchfinder ascend the palace steps and disappear. And then she turned away, determined to suppress a heavy sense of foreboding by focusing on some menial chore instead. It was useless; everywhere she looked, the chamber was spotless.

"My lady, is there anything else I can do for you tonight?"

Morgana hadn't moved from her place at the window. "When will it end?" she muttered to herself. "How many more lives must be destroyed before his hatred is satisfied?"

"I don't know," Gwen responded sadly, as unbidden, an image of her father's gentle smile flashed before her eyes. "But I wish..."

"Will you stay with me tonight, Gwen?" Morgana interrupted in a tremulous voice. "I'd rather not be alone right now."

Gwen offered her what she hoped was a comforting smile. "Of course I will."

Morgana awoke with a scream, jarring Gwen from her own uneasy slumber with her cries of distress. Gwen was at her side in a flash, whispering a flurry of soothing words as the terrified woman fell into her arms and sobbed against her shoulder.

"I don't want Gaius to die," she pleaded in a muffled, broken voice. "Please... he's just an old man. Please don't do this."

"Shhh," Gwen murmured softly. "It was only a dream, Morgana. Here, let me retrieve your potion for you, and..."

She started to rise, only to be held fast when Morgana's arms wrapped even more tightly around her neck. "I know you're frightened, but maybe it will help. Let me..."

"It never helps," Morgana spat angrily, her tear filled eyes suddenly blazing with fury as she jerked away from Gwen's embrace. "The more I take, the more these visions haunt me!"

Fear pricked at the edges of Gwen's consciousness. Visions? No, visions were the product of sorcery according to Uther, and even the slightest possibility of Morgana being connected with magic was enough to make her cringe in terror. No, these could be nothing more than dreams; she was unwilling to imagine the repercussions her friend would face if they turned out to be anything else.

"It was only a nightmare," she repeated firmly, unsure whether it was Morgana or herself who was more in need of reassurance as she hurried back to the bed with a small vial clutched in her hand. "It's not real."

Morgana opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again, her momentary flash of anger suddenly replaced by a watery, self-conscious smile. Without another word, she reached for the potion and lifted it to her lips, meekly swallowing the contents before she lay back against the pillows and closed her eyes once more.

The streets of Camelot bustled with activity during the days that followed, citizens going about their normal routines as if nothing were amiss. It was only upon closer inspection that the strain was evident; servants, craftsman, and merchants alike scurried about nervously, the fear that flickered behind their eyes speaking of a truth they couldn't voice aloud.

Gwen understood their quiet sense of dread at a level that was only possible for someone who had been a longtime resident of the city. This was far from the first time Uther had overreacted to the suggestion of sorcery, whether that threat was real or only imagined. And as she passed one familiar face after another, she was hard put to find even one who hadn't personally suffered from the king's tyrannical war on magic.

How many of the citizens who'd already lost their lives had truly been guilty? She couldn't say, but it was difficult to believe that the cobbler's former apprentice, a gangly youth with a a friendly grin and a sweet, unassuming nature, had been a sorcerer with a plan to break into the palace treasury. He'd been one of the lucky ones; his cell had been empty on the morning of his execution, and despite an exhaustive search, he'd never been seen again.

Others had not been so fortunate, however. Gwen's heart ached with sympathy as she passed the fruit peddler who always set up his wares just a few dozen paces away from the palace, still remembering him as a joyful man who'd been forever armed with a smile and a fresh slice of whatever fruit he had in excess that day for the local children who visited his cart.

The poor merchant never smiled anymore, not since his daughter had been accused of selling an enchanted apple to one of the guards the year before and had lost her head at Uther's behest.

"Which of us will be next?" That was the question she read in one pair of eyes after another, knowing it was mirrored in her own as she reached the palace and hurriedly ascended the steps. It wouldn't matter if there was no real culprit to be found; Uther would demand a blood price in exchange for the merest suggestion that someone had dared to use magic in his precious kingdom, and solid evidence would cease to matter if he had to wait for the vengeance he craved.


Distracted by her troubled thoughts, she hadn't noticed Arthur until he was standing right in front of her, looking slightly uncomfortable as he always did whenever she was in his presence these days.

"Sire," she responded, as she dropped into a brief, yet respectful curtsy.

Arthur looked pained. "Guinevere, you know that's not necessary."

"Isn't it?" she questioned with a slight edge of sarcasm to her voice. "You've made it quite clear that..."

Gwen was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a throat being softly cleared at her back. "Sire," Sir Leon said apologetically, glancing briefly in her direction before focusing his full attention on Arthur. "Forgive the interruption, but the king requires your presence in the Council Chamber. Aredian is ready to present his findings."

"Of course," Arthur replied shortly, then turned and followed the knight without so much as a word of farewell.

Typical, she grumbled to herself as she continued along her way to Morgana's chamber. Why should I be surprised? He's always been an arrogant...

But Gwen never finished the thought as she reached her destination to discover a white faced Morgana, frantically wringing her hands as she paced back and forth across the room. Seemingly devoid of her usual grace, she bumped into her dressing table, barely reacting when a small bottle of perfume toppled over and fell to the floor with a crash.

"There you are!" she said a little breathlessly, reaching out to clutch Gwen's arm. Her hands were clammy, noticeably trembling in the few seconds before she remembered herself and let go. "Where have you been?"

Gwen stared at her, both in confusion and increasing worry. "My lady, you sent me to the lower town to see if there was any suitable fabric for a new gown. There wasn't, but the merchant said..."

"Of course," Morgana interrupted with a mirthless laugh. "I'm sorry, I just..."

"Morgana, is something wrong?"

"We're late, that's all," she replied stiffly. "I'm expected in the Council Chamber, so we best be on our way."

Morgana was curiously silent as they made their way through the corridors and into the crowded hall. Gwen wanted to believe it was merely anxiety over being late that had her behaving so strangely, but it became impossible to continue to think that when Uther waved away her apologies, treating her to a warm smile as she took her seat beside him.

Gwen watched her closely as the Witchfinder presented his witnesses, three peasant women who babbled about ghosts and goblins… and frogs, of all things. Morgana never seemed to relax; on the contrary, her face became more and more pale as she watched the proceedings with fear in her eyes.

Why? Was it nothing more than her usual distaste for the king's harsh policies regarding magic? Morgana had a compassionate soul and a strong sense of justice; she'd never reacted well to such things. But in the past, she'd always looked angry in such moments, never terrified, as if she herself was being accused.

No, Gwen had to be imagining things. Morgana, of all people? She was the king's ward, the last person who would take the enormous risk of meddling with magic.

"My methods are infallible, my findings incontestable!" Aredian pronounced in a dramatic voice, clearly relishing his moment of triumph as the audience collectively held its breath. "The facts point to one person and one person alone... the boy, Merlin!"

There was a heavy pause before Arthur spoke. "Merlin?" he said in a skeptical voice that seemed to echo Gwen's own thoughts on the matter. "You can't be serious."

But it became abundantly clear this was no jest, as Merlin was restrained by the guards and Uther ordered a full search of his chambers. When the king called for dismissal immediately thereafter, Gwen trailed after Morgana in bewilderment, trying in vain to ignore the loud crashing sounds that echoed through the corridor as the physician's quarters were ripped apart.

"Merlin?" she questioned helplessly once they'd reached the safety of Morgana's rooms. "Clearly, the man is a phony. Who could possibly believe that Merlin..." and then she trailed off, as she looked into Morgana's face. Gone was the unnatural paleness she'd witnessed earlier, replaced by an expression that seemed almost... relieved.

No, she had to be mistaken. Morgana must only appear to have relaxed because she knew very well that no evidence would be found and that Merlin would be acquitted. Yes, that had to be it.

But then again, the king had executed people suspected of using magic based on far less than the word of a Witchfinder he obviously held in the highest esteem. Merlin could be in grave danger; would it be enough that Gaius and Arthur would surely vouch for his innocence?

Gwen wanted to discuss her concerns with Morgana, and hopefully receive some reassurance that there was nothing to worry about, but she was never given the chance. Throughout the remainder of the afternoon and well into the evening, she was sent on one errand after another, and in the end, she discovered that it was unnecessary to be concerned about Merlin's fate after all when she met him in the corridor. He looked a bit shaken, but obviously, the charges that had been leveled against him had come to nothing.

"Merlin!" she called out happily. "I knew they wouldn't find..."

"They've got Gaius," he interrupted in a shaky voice. "He's been taken to the dungeons for interrogation."

"Gaius?" she echoed vaguely. "But what evidence could they possibly have against him? He's done nothing wrong; you know that as well as I do. Try not to worry, Merlin. I'm sure he'll be released and back in his own chambers before you know it. Uther wouldn't... no, it's absurd."

"Gwen, you don't understand."

She gave him a comforting smile. "I do understand how much you care for him. We all do. I know it's frightening, but Gaius has served Uther for most of his life. Surely even the king will see the ridiculousness of these accusations."

"I hope you're right," Merlin said, suddenly looking beyond her as if there was somewhere else he desperately wanted to be. She bid him a hasty farewell, turning to watch curiously as he raced around the corner and disappeared.

It was only when she was walking home later that evening that an echo of Morgana's frantic words in the immediate wake of her nightmare flitted across her mind.

"I don't want Gaius to die. Please, he's just an old man."

No, it didn't mean... it couldn't mean...

Throughout the following day, she resisted the urge to ask Morgana about the details of her dream once, twice, a dozen times. Over and over, she told herself she was just being silly; it was natural to worry over a person you cared for that was old and frail. She herself had often felt a great deal of concern when it seemed like Gaius was overworking himself or not getting the rest he needed.

Yes, it was only a coincidence, nothing more, and she was quite certain she could go on believing that as long as she didn't voice the question aloud.

Nonetheless, it became more and more difficult to ignore her fears when Gaius remained in the dungeons below, and Merlin wandered around with an increasingly frantic expression on his face. "Difficult" became downright impossible when the elderly physician finally prostrated himself before the king, confessing that he was indeed a sorcerer.

Gwen didn't believe it for a second. One look at Gaius told her that all the hushed whispers she'd heard among the palace staff were true; he'd clearly been subjected to torture, and the ordeal had obviously broken him to the point where he'd rather face the consequences than continue to protest his innocence.

But to her, it wasn't a question of guilt. It was the unmistakable connection between Morgana's dream and the increasing likelihood that it was about to come true. If it did, she'd be forced to face the reality of losing not just one, but two people she cared for deeply. If Morgana's nightmares were indeed the product of foresight, after all, a gift that was intimately connected with the world of magic, how long could she possibly have before Uther discovered the truth and condemned her as a witch? He'd coldly ordered the execution of his oldest and dearest friend… could Morgana truly expect mercy at his hand?

Her fears increased as Aredian summoned the other woman down to the dungeons for questioning again, leaving her pale and shaken upon her return to her chambers.

"I don't know how much more I can take," she whispered in a muffled voice, as she sank down onto the bed and buried her face in her hands. "He's going to discover the truth anyway. I know he is. Maybe I should just tell him now and save myself the trouble."

Gwen sat down beside her and placed a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Surely you've already told him you're innocent, Morgana. That's the only truth that matters. Uther will never convict you without evidence that doesn't exist. Not you, Morgana. He cares for you too much."

Morgana let out a surprisingly bitter laugh. "Truth? You don't know the truth, Gwen. No one does... but they will. And when they do, I'll be the next to meet my death upon that pyre."

"No," Gwen said harshly, unwilling to accept the idea that Morgana could be guilty of any crime that was worthy of execution. "You're reacting to the strain, that's all. This is what he wants. Can't you see that? Do you honestly think Gaius is a sorcerer? Of course not! Aredian broke him down to the point where he was willing to say anything to make it stop, and now he's trying to do the same to you. Morgana, don't let him..."

She trailed off as the other woman released a loud, shuddering breath.

"Gwen, I have magic. Stop pretending you haven't suspected it for quite some time."

Chapter Text

Chapter 54: The Breaking Point

For a few endless heartbeats, Gwen could only stare at Morgana in shock. And then she abruptly rose to her feet, hurrying over to scrub feverishly at a nonexistent smudge on the spotless window.

It was the wrong action to take, she realized, as her eyes drifted down to the courtyard where the workmen were hammering away at the pyre where a vengeful king fully intended for his oldest friend to suffer an agonizing death… all because he'd confessed under extreme duress to the crime of possessing magic.

Magic... the same unforgivable trespass Morgana had admitted to just a moment before.

No, she wouldn't listen... not because she didn't recognize there must be some truth behind the words, but because she couldn't bear the thought of the consequences. No, now more than ever, it was crucial to keep it a secret, to never even speak of it aloud. Pretending it didn't exist was the only way to keep her safe.

"Gwen?" Morgana said nervously, rising from the bed and taking a tentative step toward the window where she stood. "Aren't you going to say anything?"

"What would you like me to say, my lady?" Gwen said with an air of forced courtesy meant to disguise her overwhelming fear. "I've already told you what I think. Aredian is putting a lot of pressure on you, trying to get you to confess and perhaps even to believe things that just aren't true."

"Gwen, look at me."

Reluctantly, she turned to face a pair of wide, imploring eyes.

"Do you think I'm so weak, that I'd be broken after only being questioned a couple of times? I'm telling you, Gwen, I have magic. I've known for months now, long before we'd ever even heard of Aredian. It was confirmed for me by the Druids, but I suspected it even before then. I know it must come as a shock for me to say it outright like this, but you can't pretend that you never..."

"Stop it!" Gwen hissed furiously. "Stop saying things that can only condemn you! Whether what you say is true or not, we mustn't speak of it! Your innocence is your only protection, can't you see that?"

"Gwen, it isn't that easy," Morgana said quietly. "I can't just pretend it doesn't exist."

"Yes, you can. You must. Morgana, you know the consequences..."

Morgana stared out the window beyond her, a single tear trailing down her cheek as she studied the waiting pyre. "Better than anyone. But... but that doesn't change who I am."

"I know who you are," Gwen responded, feeling a wave of compassion for the gentle, spirited friend she'd always loved. Despite her best efforts to push the thought away, she imagined Uther raging with fury as he ordered Morgana's death, shuddering in revulsion as she pictured the terrified woman being lashed to that dreadful pyre. "I just can't bear the thought of you... I can't bear it."

Morgana's voice hitched on a ragged sob. "You can't even say it, can you?" she said bitterly. "The idea of me having magic is so repugnant to you that..."

But she never had a chance to finish the thought, as there was a soft, yet distinctive knock at the door. Hastily, she brushed away her tears and smoothed her hair, nodding imperceptibly to Gwen when she felt sufficiently prepared to greet the visitor.

Aredian strode into the chamber without so much as a passing glance at Gwen, practically smirking at Morgana's rigid back as he joined her at the window.

"Lady Morgana," he said, in a light, conversational tone that contradicted the almost predatory intensity in his eyes. "Forgive me for disturbing you at this late hour, but I'm afraid your presence is required for another round of questioning."

Unable to help herself, Gwen loudly cleared her throat. "Can't it wait until morning at least? It's nearly midnight, and as you can see, my mistress is exhausted."

"The war against sorcery waits for no one," he said sternly, still refusing to look in her direction. "Man or woman, poor or privileged, the foul stench of magic threatens to permeate this land. I'm sure you understand that we must act with the utmost urgency for even the smallest hope we might be able to hold it at bay. That is, of course, if you are on our side."

She gasped as he finally turned to face her, fixing her with the coldest, most penetrating stare she'd ever encountered. Neither she or Morgana took a breath as the air in the room seemed to dissipate beneath the heavy silence.

"Well?" Aredian prompted mercilessly, the upturned corner of his mouth making it clear that he was aware of her fright and was quite enjoying the effect his intimidating presence was having on her.

"Of course," Gwen stammered out. "I-I've never wanted anything to do with magic. I wish it would disappear forever."

Aredian hesitated for a moment as if pondering the words, then gave a nod of satisfaction. "Yes, as do we all. But some of us have to work to make that happen, I'm sure you understand. Go home, you are dismissed."

Gwen opened her mouth, wanting to protest that it was only Morgana herself who had the power to dismiss her. But she thought better of it, dropping a brief curtsy as she mumbled a farewell in Morgana's direction. She tried not to notice the way the other woman refused to meet her eyes.

She kept her steps casual and unhurried until she rounded the corner and then she was off, racing through the corridors toward the only hope she might have of saving not only Gaius's life, but Morgana's as well.

Merlin suspected, just as she had, that Aredian gained his confessions through less than honorable means of coercion. But it wasn't until he mentioned the amulet, evidence which both Merlin and Gaius claimed they'd never seen before, that she began to realize the full extent of the Witchfinder's treachery.

It was unquestionable that Aredian was planting any number of items in order to condemn innocent people and receive a hefty payment in return. Not that it helped to know that; she despaired at first, particularly when Merlin optimistically (and somewhat foolishly) ventured off to investigate Aredian's chambers, returning with nothing more than a handful of dried flower petals.

But Merlin, bless his seemingly limitless determination, motivated them both to continue and ultimately succeed in their search, hours after Gwen had been ready to throw up her hands in surrender. They ran breathlessly through the deserted streets of Camelot in the dead of night soon thereafter, immensely relieved to finally have the proof they needed to save one innocent life and prevent the likely condemnation of another.

Aredian had forced the hapless apothecary to sell eyedrops that contained a tincture of belladonna, a substance known to cause hallucinations. That would account for the witnesses who'd claimed to see dancing goblins, mysterious faces in wells, and even frogs leaping from a sorcerer's mouth... but would the evidence be enough?

Gwen voiced this concern to Merlin, who immediately set off again without explaining his intentions. She had no choice but to put her trust in him and wait, anxiously pacing back and forth across the empty physician's chamber until the light of the early morning sun began to spill over the horizon.

As worried as she was over Gaius's fate, her thoughts returned again and again to Morgana. Saving Gaius's life would mean rescuing an innocent man from a slow and terrible death, but it also signified something else. Not only would Morgana be free from danger if Aredian were exposed as a fraud, but it would also prove that her nightmares were nothing more than dreams. After all, if it had indeed been a prophecy when she'd envisioned Gaius's death, wouldn't it come true?

She wasn't well-informed on the intricacies of foretelling, of course, but the theory made sense to her, and so she accepted it.

And then she watched from the window with a chill in the pit of her stomach as Gaius was led out into the sunlight in that hideous cage, clad in nothing more than a filthy nightshirt as he squinted his eyes against the glaring sunlight. Never had he looked more harmless, nor had Gwen ever realized just how much she cared for him than she did as she studied the expression of grim resignation on his gentle, careworn features.

No... no, this couldn't be happening. She hated Uther in that moment, perhaps even more than she had when he'd condemned her own father to die for a crime he hadn't committed. At least Tom had been a stranger to the king; what kind of monster could do this to a man he claimed to love?

"Merlin!" she shrieked, on the edge of hysteria by the time he finally burst through the door. "Where have you been?!"

"It's done," he told her breathlessly. "Everything's in place."

"But it's too late! Gaius has already left the dungeons!"

"Then we'll have to delay the execution," he responded matter-of-factly.


"Arthur. I'll speak to Arthur."

Suddenly, she felt ashamed that she hadn't even considered that option. Arthur wouldn't allow this to happen; she knew it deep in her heart with that same quiet faith she'd always had in his goodness. Her discomfort toward him for personal reasons in recent times had blinded her to the strength of the ruler she still believed he was destined to be.

"No," she said firmly. "Leave Arthur to me."

Gwen pushed her way through the tightly packed crowd, wondering as she always did why the citizens of Camelot were so eager to witness an execution. She shied away from such things herself, shuttering the windows in her own home or in Morgana's chambers to avoid the brutal scenes.

But she didn't have that luxury now; for good or ill, she had to at least try and reach Arthur before it was too late.

"Arthur!" she panted breathlessly, desperate to make herself heard above the roaring crowd. "Arthur!"

"Arthur!" she gasped a final time as she finally reached him. "You've got to stop this!"

"I can't, Gwen," he said gently, his blue eyes full of sad acceptance. "You know I can't."

"Merlin has proof that Gaius is innocent!"

"My father's already passed sentence. There's nothing I can do."

"You can do the right thing!" she raged, never stopping to think about the repercussions of speaking to him in such a manner as she would've in the past. "You can show some faith in a loyal friend, or you can stand by and watch an innocent man die!"


No, she'd known what it was to feel helpless once before, unable to save a man she loved from the king's tyranny. She hadn't been bold enough back then to fight as much as she should have, and that would be a regret she'd carry for the rest of her life.

Too late... far too late to change what had happened to Tom. But Gaius was still alive, and she refused to step aside simply because Arthur was afraid to defy his father. One look in his eyes told her he believed in Gaius's innocence, and that was enough for her to blurt out the hard, yet unavoidable truth she knew as well as he did.

"You did it once before to my father. Are you really willing to let it happen again?" He looked stunned by her outburst, which only drove her to continue with her tirade. "And you can stop looking at me like that! I know I'm only a servant! I thought you were a prince, so start behaving like one!"

A sudden hush fell over the excited crowd; Gwen sucked in a deep breath as Aredian lowered the flaming torch to the pile of tinder that surrounded the old man's feet. One heartbeat, and then another... in just a few more seconds, Gaius would be beyond help.

"Wait," Arthur said, his voice filled with authority as it echoed through the silent courtyard.

No more than an hour later, Aredian had been exposed as a fraud, and the wrongly accused had been fully acquitted. The whole of Camelot seemed to breathe again, though there was quite a bit of gossip on the streets as to how the former Witchfinder had met such an abrupt and untimely end.

Some claimed that Uther himself had run him through in a moment of rage at his deception; others insisted that Arthur had quietly disposed of him when everyone else had left the room. Gwen even heard a rumor that Gaius himself had suddenly rallied, calling him a name so foul she wouldn't even allow herself to think it as he'd shoved the man through the window.

None of these stories were true, of course. Aredian had indeed fallen to his death, but his own clumsiness had been what sealed his fate, not outside interference.

Exhausted from her sleepless night and the day's strain, she wandered aimlessly home. She'd offered to stay with Morgana that night, realizing the other woman was still shaken from the trials she'd had to endure. Morgana had dismissed her rather abruptly, however, insisting she wanted to be alone. Gwen understood, or at least, she thought she did; the previous few days had been hard on them all, particularly those who'd been under suspicion.

Smiling to herself, she realized she'd been right, not just on one count, but regarding many things. Her theory about Aredian's falsehood had proven correct, Arthur had once again justified her faith in his good heart, and most of all, Morgana's nightmare had been just that... merely an unpleasant dream that held no hint of magic or prophecy.

In no time at all, life would go back to normal, and the effects of this unpleasant episode would be behind them forever.

She tried to reassure herself of that anyway, choosing to ignore the distance she'd seen in Morgana's eyes, and the hint of coldness that had never been in her voice before. It was only the shock of her ordeal that made it seem as if an invisible wall had been erected between them, one that would surely melt away in time.

But as the weeks passed, the wall stayed firmly in place. Morgana treated her as courteously as ever, but the intimacy that had once existed between them seemed to dissipate, leaving nothing but empty words in its wake. Confidences, even those as simple as which new knight Morgana found attractive or some harmless tidbit of gossip she'd heard among the courtiers, became a thing of the past. Gwen merely showed up for work, performed her duties and was politely dismissed.

She wanted to ask what had changed their relationship so drastically, but deep in her heart, she already knew the truth. The truth was magic... or more accurately, her reaction to it, regardless of whether or not the magic itself had been real or imagined. How could she hope to repair the damage, without broaching the terrifying subject that must remain untouched as long as it posed even the slightest threat to Morgana's life?

At first, she struggled to find an answer, but in the end, it was easiest to ignore a reality she still wasn't prepared to acknowledge... not out of fear for herself, but out of concern for the friend she dearly loved.

And so, she said nothing.

Chapter Text

Chapter 55: Lessons of Combat

Lancelot sat on a fallen log just a few paces from the campsite, placidly scraping blade against whetstone as he hummed quietly to himself. He paused to test the sharpness of the shining metal against his thumb from time to time, smiling in satisfaction at his progress before resuming the soothing, repetitive motions.

"Miss it, don't you?"

He looked up to find Gwaine staring down at him with a quizzical expression on his face, having just returned from hunting with a pair of plump, freshly killed rabbits dangling from one fist.

"I do," he admitted softly, running his fingers almost tenderly over the perfectly honed blade before slipping the sword back in its scabbard.

Life had been peaceful during the months he'd spent in Gwaine's company, far more secure than any other time he could recall. Work was plentiful and even pleasant; both men went to bed each night with full bellies and gold in their pockets, and not once had they encountered any serious threat to their safety. Even the occasional tavern patron Gwaine unwittingly offended was quickly soothed with a few charming words, making sure that petty disagreements never resorted to violence.

Lancelot knew he should be content, especially after the turmoil he'd gone through in the first couple years after his departure from Camelot. He should be glad not to have to look over his shoulder all the time, happy to have the companionship of a trusted friend, satisfied that he was healthy and well fed.

And in many ways, he was grateful. But it was becoming difficult to ignore the growing sense of restlessness that plagued his spirit. The yearning was never quieted by their endless wanderings anymore, nor could he exhaust himself enough through hard labor to drive away the pressing need to find a greater purpose for himself... something more fulfilling than the peaceful life of a laborer that satisfied his immediate needs, yet stirred none of his passion.

The only thing that brought him a small measure of relief these days was his habit of awakening in the cold, gray hours before dawn, relishing the familiar sensation of solid metal in his hand as he resumed his former training routines.

There were only two things that had ever truly felt right to Lancelot – instinctive, predestined, as if he'd been born with no other purpose but to devote his life to them. One of those had been his love for Guinevere, of course, and the other was his passion for the art of combat, the eternal hunger to fight, protect, and defend.

He'd assumed Gwaine was unaware of his early morning activities; after all, the other man would gladly sleep until noon whenever he could get away with it. It wasn't that Lancelot felt he had to hide it, necessarily, but he hadn't wanted to make it seem as if he were dissatisfied with his current life either... especially since he probably wouldn't be alive at all if Gwaine hadn't cared for him so diligently during his illness.

"I thought so," Gwaine nodded sagely as he squatted down beside the fire and removed a dagger from his boot. He whittled a makeshift spit with a series of deft motions, then set about the task of skinning the rabbits, not speaking again until each was seasoned, spitted, and set above the crackling wood to roast. "Can't say I blame you either. I miss it, too."

Lancelot looked up at him in surprise. Like most men, Gwaine carried a sword at his hip as a means of protection, but Lancelot had never seen him wield it. He seemed largely uninterested in combat; indeed, he devoted most of his energies to his next tankard of ale and finding a willing woman to charm.

Gwaine was strong, of course, the effortless way he breezed through hard labor long after most men would've dropped from exhaustion had proven that. But swordplay? He'd never mentioned anything about it, leading Lancelot to assume his distaste for the life of a knight extended to the craft that was usually honed and dedicated to that kind of service.

"You seem surprised."

Lancelot hesitated, not wanting to cause offense. "I just... you've never spoken of it, that's all."

"Neither have you," Gwaine pointed out with an ironic smile. "Well, not since that night I won the wager, and that was months ago. As for me, I figured you needed time to recover after everything you'd been through, so I thought I'd keep the excitement to a minimum for your sake."

"For my sake?" he echoed vaguely. "But I never asked... I didn't want..."

Gwaine silenced him with a searching look. "You needed it," he said firmly. "Maybe you can't see that for yourself, but you did. You might not appreciate me figuring that out for you, but you have to admit you're a different man than you were on the night we met. And only for the better from what I can see."

He frowned as he considered the words. It was true that he was becoming bored and restless with his placid life, forever craving the feeling of a sword in his hand rather than a hammer or a shovel. He still missed Gwen desperately, and rarely did he pass a night without dreaming of her face, or awaken the following morning to wonder for the thousandth time if he'd done the right thing by leaving her.

But the hollow desperation that had marked his existence for as long as he could remember didn't plague him the way it once had. His days were no longer filled with thoughts of failure, forever doubtful that he'd even survive to see another sunrise. The persistent feelings of inadequacy that had once dominated his existence were fading, replaced by a whisper of confidence that was growing stronger as life stopped giving him so many reasons to doubt himself.

He'd wanted to be a knight, believing his skill at the art of combat was the only thing he had to offer. And when that had come to nothing, he'd naturally assumed himself incapable of doing anything else, which had left him at a great disadvantage when considering other options. Deep in his heart, he now knew that his lack of belief in his own ability to survive without a sword in his hand had been the cause of a great deal of suffering in his life.

If Gwaine hadn't intervened, showing him there was another way, would he have given himself the chance to prove himself useful at other endeavors when necessary... as a craftsman, a merchant, or even a common laborer?

No, he realized with a quiet sense of shame. As much as he hated to admit it, he probably would've thrown up his hands in defeat just as he had before, when hunger had gnawed at his belly and despair lay heavy upon his shoulders. He would've returned to the harsh life of mercenary fighting he despised, unable to see any other path for himself.

Devoting every waking moment to the art of combat during his youth had benefited him immensely when it came to his abilities as a fighter, but in return, he'd paid a heavy price. He'd never learned to survive by other means, too consumed by a single ambition during the years when other boys were developing a variety of skills. It was never that he'd been incapable of those things, he just hadn't tried… not until Gwaine had decided he needed a break from the only thing he knew how to do.

It was one of those times when Lancelot found himself staring at his friend in quiet amazement. Had he been perceptive enough to realize all of this, back when they'd been little more than strangers? More than that, had it been nothing more than a happy coincidence that Lancelot had benefited so much through his efforts, or had Gwaine anticipated the outcome all along?

As always, when Gwaine became aware of Lancelot's suspicion that there was a great deal more to him than his normally carefree manner let on, he shifted uncomfortably and immediately diverted his attention elsewhere.

"We'll find us a good fight soon enough, don't you worry!" he announced cheerily, jarring Lancelot with a hearty thump to the back as he rose and stepped away to check on their supper. "In the meantime, let's eat!"

Gwaine proved to be a man of his word the following morning, waiting on a stump in the middle of the clearing with his sword resting across his knees. He let loose a huge yawn, then smirked lazily in response to Lancelot's obvious surprise.

"Thought I didn't know, eh?" he chuckled, his voice still husky from sleep. "Slicing at empty air might not make a lot of noise, but the same can't be said for all that grunting you do when you're facing your invisible foes. I only hope I can prove to be as challenging as they are."

Lancelot just shook his head and smiled as Gwaine rose to his feet and unsheathed his sword, moving into a familiar sparring position as they stared at one another with a gleam of excitement in their eyes.

"You first," Lancelot said graciously, reminding himself to go easy on the other man. Gwaine might be strong, but he obviously didn't possess Lancelot's years of training and carefully studied techniques, and...


The other blade connected with his own with a deafening impact, a lightning swift, unanticipated blow he'd only barely managed to block. Gwaine never gave him the chance to recover from his surprise, twisting and turning with the grace of a dancer as he met Lancelot swing for swing and thrust for thrust. Driven by raw instinct, he was a fearless opponent, with an uncanny ability to sense Lancelot's next move before he'd even thought of it himself.

His swiftness was extraordinary, and Lancelot only managed to match his considerable strength with a great deal of effort. And as the fight continued, his stamina also proved to be far beyond what one might expect from any ordinary combatant.

Lancelot was amazed; it was only the singular focus that overtook his senses when an opponent stood before him that prevented him from dropping his sword right then and there to ask Gwaine exactly how in the hell he'd come by such incredible skill.

In the end, it was Lancelot who triumphed, taking advantage of the tiny opening Gwaine provided for no more than the blink of an eye to disarm him. And then the two men sank heavily to the ground, both exhausted and drenched in sweat in the aftermath of a far greater challenge than either had expected.

"Impressive," Gwaine panted heavily, staring at Lancelot with a newfound respect in his eyes. "Very impressive."

"You too," he responded, the harsh rasp in his voice doing nothing to disguise the sincerity of his words.

"I don't think I've ever faced a better opponent."


Gwaine chuckled as he wiped the sweat from his brow. "But you defeated me."

"Not by much."

"True," he happily conceded. "What do you say to a nice, cold swim, eh?"

There was a bite to the early autumn air, but neither man noticed as they stripped off their sweat dampened clothing and plunged into the cool waters of a nearby lake. The fresh morning breeze was invigorating against their wet skin, reviving them both after their exertions. It wasn't until they stood shivering on the shore in the aftermath of their swim that they realized their mistake.

"F-fire," Gwaine gasped between chattering teeth. "Big fire."

Lancelot could only nod in response and then they were off, not even bothering to stop and dress as they streaked through the trees in the direction of blankets, fire, and much-needed warmth.

"Needs more wood," Gwaine grumbled a few minutes later, feeding another log to the already towering blaze. "I'm still freezing my balls off."

"S-so am I," Lancelot admitted as he inched closer to the flames, trying to determine how much further he could advance without burning himself. "B-but do you really think it's a good idea to make it any bigger? We don't want to attract any unwanted attention."

Gwaine chuckled as he shoved another stick into the flaming pile. "Who are you worried about, exactly? Have you seen me fight? Have you seen yourself fight? I don't think we have much to be concerned about, my friend."

"Speaking of that," Lancelot said suddenly, his voice muffled as he pulled a clean shirt over his head. "Where did you come by such skill? How did you learn?"

"Same as you did, I expect. I trained."

"But I thought you hated all of that. Soldiering, a life of service... you said you wanted no part of it."

Gwaine shook his head and smirked. "Had nothing to do with being a soldier. I was the man of the house, with a mother and sister to protect... though I'm not quite sure why I bothered with the latter, to tell you the truth."

Lancelot studied his face through the flames. "That was very honorable of you."

"Sensible, not honorable," Gwaine immediately corrected. "I had an obligation to my family, whether I chose it for myself or not. Might as well have done the best I could with it, don't you think?"

"Perhaps," Lancelot responded slowly as he pondered the words. "But I still think it was an honorable thing to do."

Gwaine shook his head in defeat, then smiled. "You're probably right. It's just the words... honor, nobility, loyalty, all those pretty phrases that kings and high lords like to throw around, never understanding what they really mean. Look at yourself, for example. Probably the most honorable man I've ever known, and you've spent your whole damn life trying to achieve something you were obviously born with."

Lancelot opened his mouth and closed it again, too touched by Gwaine's exceedingly kind assessment of his character to think of a proper response.

"Noble, too," Gwaine added, grinning in amusement at his flattered discomfort. "Incredibly noble. In fact..." he continued, furrowing his brow in mock thoughtfulness as he considered Lancelot's expression of growing embarrassment. "You're far more noble than any so-called king I can think of. How about we find a kingdom to usurp, eh? Put you on the throne?"

"Now you're just being ridiculous," Lancelot said stiffly.

"King Lancelot!" Gwaine proclaimed in a ringing voice. Not seeming to care that he was still stark naked, he rose to his feet and bowed with a flourish, pausing to take a long drink from the flask of ale he suddenly remembered and retrieved from his pack with all due haste. "Long may he reign!"

Between Gwaine's dramatic declarations of undying fealty and Lancelot's futile attempts to put an end to the awkward scene, neither of them heard the quiet footsteps of the woman as she approached their campsite. It was only when she cleared her throat, her bewildered eyes darting back and forth from Gwaine's exposed backside to Lancelot's red face, that they both became aware of her presence.

"Lancelot!" she exclaimed, after taking a moment to recover from her initial surprise.

Without another word, she marched straight over to where he sat beside the fire. Drawing her foot back, she kicked him hard.

Chapter Text

Chapter 56: Stolen Pleasures

Lancelot grunted in surprised pain as the blow connected with his shin, barely managing to avoid a second kick by scooting back a few inches and quickly rising to his feet.

"Serves you right," she sniffed haughtily, staring up at him without a trace of fear in her wide gray eyes. "Haven't heard from you since..."

"Who are you?" Gwaine suddenly interrupted, his voice filled with a mixture of curiosity and amusement.

"Gwaine," Lancelot said, grimacing slightly as he reached down to rub his injured leg. "Allow me to introduce you to Millie."

"Millie, eh?" the other man took a step closer, not seeming to realize he was still naked as he gave her an appraising look. "And how do you two know each other?"

"Just an old friend," Lancelot started a little awkwardly. "We..."

"We used to fuck like rabbits," Millie finished for him with a satisfied smile.

He cringed in embarrassment as Gwaine let out a loud chuckle. "Can't say I blame you there, my friend, I've always had a bit of a soft spot for redheads myself, especially..."

Millie's eyes traveled down his bare chest and passed over the thin trail of hair below his navel, coming to rest between his thighs. "Not the only thing soft about you from what I can see," she said with a devious smirk.

Rather than being offended, Gwaine laughed outright. "Heartless," he commented as he casually reached for a pair of trousers.

Millie ignored him, returning her full attention to Lancelot as an expression of renewed fury appeared on her face. "Where have you been?" she demanded indignantly. "Why haven't you sent word? I thought you were dead, you know, but that clearly isn't the case. Well, not yet, anyway."

He shifted uncomfortably, at a loss for how to explain his negligence. It would've been nice to have some valid excuse to give, but the truth was, he'd forgotten all about Millie and his obligation to her from the moment he'd seen Gwen again. She was a relic from his previous existence, a life of shame and dishonor, a dismal time during which he'd barely recognized himself. It had been easy to leave it all behind when Gwen had restored his faith, and Gwaine had given him a chance at an honest living that hadn't required compromising everything he believed in order to survive.

With a great deal of guilt, he reminded himself that she was a living, breathing person, not an intangible memory. She hadn't stopped having needs simply because he'd moved on with his life. He'd promised to take care of her, to send gold every few weeks so she'd have food and shelter, and he'd failed to keep his word. She had every reason to be angry.

But she didn't appear as if she'd suffered the pains of deprivation as she stood there fuming. On the contrary, the hollows in her cheeks had filled out, highlighting a face that was now plump and rosy rather than the thin, sallow features he remembered. Her eyes were alert and fearless, no longer filled with the weary resignation that had been a constant during their shared captivity. The long red hair that had once framed her face in limp, lusterless tangles was now clean and well groomed, shining like a newly minted copper coin in the afternoon sunlight.

Even her body had changed tremendously, unnatural thinness replaced by soft curves that were displayed to a flattering advantage in a clean, decently tailored dress that fit her perfectly, rather than the shapeless gray rags she'd once worn.

Lancelot had always found something appealing about her appearance, but it was with a great deal of surprise that he realized that the woman who stood before him, healthy and well cared for, was quite beautiful.

Gwaine seemed to agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. He couldn't take his eyes off Millie as she glared at Lancelot, waiting impatiently for his response.


"I'm sorry," he told her again, holding his hands out in a gesture of surrender. "A lot has happened since I last saw you, and... well, I'm sorry. I promised to provide for your needs, and I failed in that. There's nothing I can say to..."

Millie cut him off with an exasperated sigh. "I don't care about the gold. It didn't take me long to figure out that I'm perfectly capable of earning my own way, thank you very much. But you still should have sent word. I thought we were friends, Lancelot, after everything. I wasn't expecting anything more from you, so if you were worried about that..."

"No, that's not it. I just... I'm sorry. You're right. I should have, and I didn't."

"Well, I guess there's nothing to be done about it now," she said, giving him a sullen look. "Just don't let it happen again. The next time, I'll do more than just kick you. I can promise you that."

Trying to be discreet and failing, Gwaine cleared his throat rather awkwardly. "I'm sorry to disturb either of you in the middle of this touching scene, but I'm starving. Thought I'd go find us something to eat. Will our guest be staying for supper?"

Millie appeared to be taken aback for a fleeting moment, but then quickly recovered. "No," she said shortly. "I need to be getting back to the tavern. Cook will be wondering where I am with these." She paused, holding up a sack of berries Lancelot hadn't noticed until that moment. "Said I'd have to pick them myself if I wanted tarts tonight. But the two of you can come along; I'm sure Nessie would be happy to see you, Lancelot."

"Tavern?" Gwaine echoed, his eyes alighting with interest.

Lancelot stared at her in surprise. "Then we must be close to..."

"Oakview," she confirmed with a curt nod. Without another word, she turned and strode away.

"Millie never said she had a younger sister," Gwaine said flirtatiously, bending over the older woman's hand and pressing a lingering kiss to the backs of her fingers. Nessie looked flustered as she quickly drew it away, nervously fiddling with the untidy wisps of faded blonde hair that had escaped her messy braid. And then she remembered herself, shaking her head with an indelicate snort of derision.

"Don't even try that with me, boy. I'm old enough to be your mother and we both know it. Now go find yourselves a table; Millie will be with you shortly. I'm afraid I don't have time to talk just now, but it's good to see you, Lancelot. As ugly as ever, of course, but you look well."

Gwaine smirked at him as they sat down at the only empty table, tucked away in the back corner of the room. Lancelot didn't notice the other man's amusement, however; he was too busy looking around the inn in amazement. Gone was the humble place he remembered, a worn down, barely inhabited dwelling that would have been lucky to serve even a small handful of patrons on a good day.

From the freshly scrubbed tables to the clean, whitewashed walls, The Sleeping Goat was almost unrecognizable. The tightly packed room was warm, filled with the fragrances of wood smoke and roasted meat as the inhabitants raised toasts to one another, filling the atmosphere with the sounds of hearty laughter and pleasant conversation.

He was at a loss to figure out how the place had changed so much during his absence; after all, it had been less than a year since the last time he'd visited. But then Millie reappeared and he began to understand.

She breezed through the front door with just a hint of a mischievous smile playing about her lips, clad in a different dress than the one she'd been wearing when they'd met her in the forest. Crafted from some wispy blue material that clung to her like a second skin, the bodice dipped dangerously low, her breasts threatening to spill over if she leaned forward even a few inches.

After a few calculated seconds, she sashayed across the room, seeming to sense the rapt gaze of every man who watched her progress as she added an extra sway to her hips. Bending down to murmur directly in their ears wasn't necessary; a definite hush had descended upon the previously boisterous crowd upon the moment of her arrival. But she did it nonetheless, asking each customer what he needed with sweetly appealing eyes.

When she finally reached Lancelot and Gwaine, her face turned safely away from the other patrons, she treated them both to an ironic smirk. "What can I get for you?"

"Your hand in marriage, sweet lady," Gwaine declared passionately. "And a couple of tankards of mead, if it wouldn't be too much trouble."

Millie snorted, careful to disguise the sound as a delicate cough when another customer passed their table. "I was proposed to three times on my way over here," she said with a satisfied grin. "Try something better next time."

Gwaine let out a low whistle as she turned and walked away, only returning his attention to Lancelot when she'd disappeared into the kitchen. "You and her," he started, seeming flustered. "You really..."

"Yes," Lancelot said quietly, realizing there was no point in denying it. "But that was more than a year ago. It doesn't matter now."

"Do you still have feelings for her?"

"No. I never did, to tell you the truth. She was just..."

"A warm place to stick it?" Gwaine helpfully supplied.

Lancelot cringed at the choice of words, but then he nodded. "I never felt good about it, but..."

"But even you can be human on occasion. Good to know. But if it didn't mean anything..."

"You're curious as to why I was sending her money," he guessed, not surprised in the least when Gwaine nodded. "I helped her out of a difficult situation, that's all. I wanted to make sure she'd be all right."

"So you don't mind if I...?"


"Are you sure?"


When Millie returned with their drinks, Lancelot studied her with detached curiosity, finding it difficult to remember ever having been intimate with her. She was beautiful, of course, but the faint stirrings of desire he felt as he glanced at the breasts that were straining against the flimsy fabric of her dress were purely physical. It was as it had always been – a mindless craving, nothing more.

In the past, he might have submitted to it all over again, but something had changed in him during his all too brief time with Gwen. After what had passed between them on that final night, what had very nearly happened as she'd lain half naked in his arms, he simply couldn't imagine being in that position with anyone else.

And so he turned away from her, away from the feeble temptation she offered, silently giving Gwaine his blessing as the other man devoted his energies to a complete and thorough seduction. He hit her with an onslaught of carefully chosen words and charming gestures that even Millie, for all her stubbornness, eventually couldn't resist.

It was well after midnight when the last of the other customers had finally stumbled upstairs or staggered outside to sleep elsewhere. Off duty at last, Millie had settled herself comfortably on Gwaine's lap, not bothering to ask permission before drinking from his tankard as she related entertaining stories about her more colorful patrons. Before long, however, they were lost in a passionate, seemingly endless kiss as Lancelot shifted uncomfortably in his seat, trying to focus his attention on anything aside from what was swiftly turning into a groping session right across the table.

"There aren't any vacant rooms," he heard Millie murmur huskily as he carefully studied a ring of condensation on the table. "But if you'd like to come home with me..."

He glanced up, shocked to see her straddling Gwaine with her skirt hitched up almost to her waist as she rocked her hips against him in a suggestive rhythm. Gwaine's mouth was latched firmly on an exposed nipple, his voice muffled as he let out what was clearly a groan of assent.

It wasn't until Millie rose to her feet and straightened her dress, leaving Gwaine to fumble with the ties of his partially unlaced trousers, that the other man seemed to remember Lancelot's presence. Heady with lust and too much mead, he waved a clumsy hand somewhat vaguely in his direction. "What about him?"

"It's all right. I can just return to our campsite and sleep there. I don't mind..."

Millie rolled her eyes. "Don't be ridiculous. There's plenty of room for both of you, and besides, it's pouring outside. Come on. I'm ready for bed."

"Me too," Gwaine said enthusiastically as they followed her across the tavern.

And then Lancelot was forced to wait again as his friend suddenly pinned her against the door, ravishing her with a long, sloppy kiss as his hand slid down to cup her backside. He ground his hips against her with a groan that was so needful, so hungry, that Lancelot felt himself grow hard in sympathy.

But they finally made their way outside, racing through the frigid downpour with Lancelot silently hoping Millie lived close to the tavern. Unfortunately, her home was located several streets away; they were drenched to the bone by the time they burst through the door of the tiny cottage.

"F-fire," she said between chattering teeth, waving a hand vaguely in the direction of the small hearth. "B-blankets are in that cupboard next to the window. M-make yourself comfortable, Lancelot, and be sure to get out of those wet clothes. We don't need anyone getting sick around here."

Without another word, Millie and Gwaine disappeared into the other room, slamming the door behind them.

He heard a low giggle, followed by the sodden thump of wet clothes hitting the floor, and then the creak of a bed frame as a pair of bodies fell heavily across the mattress. He shook his head with a rueful smile, quickly lighting a fire before stripping off his own soaked garments and laying them out to dry.

The room was simple, yet clean; there was a small kitchen area, a roughly hewn table with a couple of chairs, several cabinets, and a thick rag rug that lay in front of the hearth. Lancelot retrieved a blanket and settled himself on the floor, soon growing drowsy as the comforting warmth began to steal over his bare flesh. The crackling fire, mingled with the steady, rhythmic pounding of rain on the thatched roof was infinitely soothing; he might have fallen asleep right then if it hadn't been for the noises that began to emerge from behind the closed door.

It began with a sharp, feminine gasp, followed by a grunt of satisfaction, a clear indication that Gwaine had just penetrated her for the first time. This was confirmed by the faint vibrations of the floorboards, the subtle squeak of the bed frame, the cadence of the soft, hungry moans that reached Lancelot's ears.

He grew hard all over again, aching with need as he clenched his fists against his naked thighs, resisting the overwhelming urge to touch himself. And yet why shouldn't he? He was alone, after all.

With a sigh of defeat that quickly turned into a groan of pleasure, he reached beneath the blanket to stroke himself, moving his fist up and down in time with the rhythm that was slowly building on the other side of the wall. His breath caught in his throat as his eyes drifted closed, sweat beading his forehead as he surrendered to the cravings he couldn't ignore. He didn't want to be Gwaine in that room with Millie. No, he had no desire for her in particular. He just wanted... needed...

They were picking up speed now, their pace swift and savage as it pulsed through the floorboards beneath his own straining body. Harsh grunts echoed off the walls, mingling with sobs of pleasure... noises of wild abandon he shamelessly responded to with his own soft pants and ragged groans.

And then reality ceased to exist, their sounds of passion becoming nothing more than the backdrop to a vividly realistic picture of Gwen lying beneath him as he drove into her with the same frantic rhythm that rocked through the tiny house. When the breathless little cry reached his ears, a desperate plea for "More!" he stroked himself faster, harder, hearing the word not from behind a closed door, but whispered from the lips that floated like a vision behind his tightly closed eyes.

Gwen's lips... he remembered their softness as he dreamed of ravishing them with his own. Deep, hungry kisses, devouring her gasps of pleasure, then moving to her neck, the curve of her shoulder, any expanse of flesh his searching mouth could possibly reach. The rhythm pounded through his body, primal and instinctive, as he envisioned Gwen with her head thrown back, tousled curls spilling wildly across the ground as she gazed up at him through heavy lidded eyes, soft and hazy with passion.

When the moment finally came, he was so lost to his fantasy that he could almost feel his phantom lover trembling with the sheer force of her need. Cries of helpless abandon trailed off into a loud, ragged whimper as he imagined her trembling body gripping him more tightly, drawing him in, pulsing around him with waves of pure ecstasy, pushing him over the edge until he lost all control and found his own powerful release.

Lancelot was dimly aware that his loud, shuddering gasps were echoed by a shout of triumph on the other side of the wall, but it was only in the aftermath, sweat drenched and panting as he lay alone in front of the fire, that reality came rushing back. But try as he might, he couldn't bring himself to feel embarrassed about what he'd just done... the intense feeling of relief was too overpowering to waste much thought on anything beyond the desire to close his eyes and drift off to sleep.

As always, it was her face that followed him into the land of dreams.

Chapter Text

Chapter 57: Prelude to Change

Lancelot awoke just before sunrise, letting out a muffled groan that was echoed by a series of far more enthusiastic noises on the other side of the wall. Again?! It was the third, perhaps even the fourth time in just a few short hours; he was at a loss to figure out how either of them still had the energy to keep going when they obviously hadn't slept at all.

He sat up and winced as a sharp pain shot through his head, promising himself for the hundredth time he'd never drink again as he rubbed his bleary eyes and reached for his trousers.

The morning breeze was cool when he stepped outside, fresh and fragrant in the aftermath of the previous night's storm. The muddy streets of the small village were still mostly deserted, but he smiled politely as he passed a pair of sweet faced young milkmaids, then murmured a quiet "good morning" to an elderly man who was sweeping his front stoop.

It occurred to him to make his way to the woods and practice a bit of swordplay as he usually did in the mornings, but he was just too tired to bother. Instead, he headed straight to the inn, his stomach giving an audible growl in response to the tantalizing odor of bacon that drifted from the open windows.

"There you are, Lancelot!" Nessie called cheerfully, wiping her hands on her apron as she hurried over to greet him. "You want some breakfast? Silly question, of course you do. Go find yourself a table and I'll be back before you know it."

Far from the bustling crowd of the previous evening, the inn was almost deserted. There were a couple of groggy looking farmers at a table in the corner, their heads bent in quiet conversation as they sipped from their tankards, but other than that, the place was empty. Lancelot chose a table beside the window, then smiled as Nessie returned with large platter of bacon, eggs, sausages, and fresh baked bread.

"That's very kind of you," he said sincerely, watching as she placed the food in front of him with a flourish.

She sniffed. "Customers pay for food, I bring it. Don't see what's so kind about that."

He tried to hide a smile as she sat down across from him, remembering all too well how awkward she could be when it came to receiving compliments. At that thought, he decided to give her another.

"There's been a lot of improvement around here. You've been working hard."

"Hardly working is more like it," she responded with a grin. "And much of that is thanks to you."

Lancelot stared at her in bewilderment. "Me?"

"Of course. I'm working half as long for twice as much now that I have Millie around. Oh, I'll admit she was a handful at first, sitting around here all sullen, refusing to do anything but wait for those coins you were sending so she could spend them on useless things. Would've put her out right then and there if I hadn't given you my word, but I'm glad I didn't."

"I'm sorry, I..."

"Now, don't start with the apologies. Eat your food and listen. Whatever your reason, the best thing you ever did for that girl was when you stopped sending that gold. She didn't need to be taken care of; what she needed was to learn how to fend for herself. A girl like that, what she's been through… feels helpless enough already without a man treating her like it's true."

"But I still..."

"No woman wants a man deciding what's best for her," Nessie interrupted, staring pointedly at the plate in front of him before she continued. "Likes to feel she's capable of thinking for herself, believe it or not. Oh, I know your intentions were good when you brought her here, but you never gave her a choice in the matter either. Isn't a woman alive who won't resent a man for that."

An image suddenly flashed in Lancelot's mind, not of Millie, but of Gwen. Stubbornly, he pushed it away.

"Even if that's true, I still failed to keep my word to you," he said quietly. "I promised that if you took her in..."

Nessie snorted. "And you think I was foolish enough to expect you to follow through on that promise? Now, don't look at me like that. I'm not questioning your integrity. No doubt you meant every word at the time. But no man has it in him to stay beholden to a woman he cares nothing about, to keep her in his thoughts when life moves on without her. It's just not in your nature."

"But if you knew that..."

The unspoken question hung heavy in the air between them, making Nessie squirm uncomfortably in her seat. Her soft heart had compelled her to take Millie in and they both knew it… just as they knew it had everything to do with the genuine affection she harbored for Lancelot beneath her gruff exterior. It had never been a matter of gold, even if she'd pretended otherwise at the time.

Mercifully, he let the awkward moment pass, switching to a safer line of questioning. "So what happened after...?"

Nessie grinned at the memory as she spoke. "Told the miserable ingrate she'd have to work if she didn't want to find herself without a bed to sleep in that night. Of course, she didn't believe me. Told me to stuff it up my ass, so I told her she could go bed down with the pigs where she belonged, useless sot that she was. And then I picked her up and threw her out."

Lancelot stared at her in disbelief.

"Yes," she continued, pausing to let out a hearty chuckle. "Little fool was stubborn about it, not that I expected anything less. Slept in the woods for nearly a week before she came crawling back, dirty and half starved, swearing up and down she'd do whatever I wanted if I'd take her back in. Even offered to whore herself, though I guess she understood we wouldn't be having that when I gave her a nice, hard slap in response."

"But she's..."

"Bedded up with that handsome friend of yours," Nessie nodded sagely. "I know. But he's not paying her for it, is he? Nothing wrong with a woman doing it by her own choice."

"I suppose you're right," he responded. After all, it was the same reasoning he'd used to justify sharing a bed with Millie in the past. Even though he'd given it little thought in quite some time, there was still comfort in hearing someone else confirm those feelings.

"Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I put her to work here in the tavern. She was a disaster at first, sniping at the customers and spilling drinks all over the place. But once she figured out how much more she could earn by being charming, pretty girl that she is, everything changed. Well," she paused and waved her hand at the greatly improved atmosphere of the room. "Guess this place speaks for itself."

"I'm glad it worked out so well," Lancelot said sincerely. "For both of you."

"And what about you? Here I am going on and on about myself, haven't heard a thing about your life. Not that I've ever been the kind to ask questions, of course, but..."

Lancelot knew that was his cue to tell her everything, though he carefully avoided any mention of Gwen as he did so. He was fairly certain what Nessie would say; he'd heard it from Gwaine all those months before, and more and more often these days, it was his own conscience that had him questioning the decision he'd made.

What could he say... to himself, to her, to anyone? It no longer mattered whether he'd been right or wrong, regardless of what anyone said. What was he supposed to do? It wasn't as if he could go rushing to Camelot after leaving her the way he had, pretending he still had the right to... what? Disrupt her life? Interfere with her happiness with Arthur, on the very likely chance they were together?

No, he'd made his choice. If there had ever been a time to hesitate, to make sure he was doing the right thing, it was far behind him now. Whatever doubts he might have, regardless of any regrets, there was nothing to do but live with the decision he'd made.

"This Gwaine sounds like a decent fellow," Nessie observed, intruding on his thoughts. "Not many men who'd care for a stranger the way he did, that's for sure."

Lancelot nodded in agreement.

"So now the two of you travel around, picking up a bit of work, then moving along to the next place," she said thoughtfully. "A pair of wanderers. Well, a lot better off than where you were, there's no denying that. Can't last forever though."

"Why do you say that?" he asked cautiously.

Nessie gave him a look that was almost apologetic before she spoke. "Because it isn't what you want. And there always comes a day when a man realizes he can't outrun the truth."

Lancelot shifted uncomfortably, avoiding the watery blue eyes that seemed to see straight into his soul. "Maybe you're right," he conceded, if for no other reason than he realized how useless it would be to protest. "But I'm content for now."

The expression on her face made it obvious that she didn't believe him, but before she could speak again, the tavern door flew open. Lancelot looked up to find Gwaine grinning at him, looking exhausted yet surprisingly cheerful. He sauntered over to the table and flopped down in an empty chair, treating Nessie to a charming smile before helping himself to a piece of Lancelot's leftover bacon.

"No manners!" she scolded as she rose to her feet, the twinkle in her eye contradicting the disapproval in her voice. "Wait just a minute and I'll get you your own."

Without another word, she hurried off to the kitchen.

"Been here long?" Gwaine questioned, yawning dramatically before fixing Lancelot with a lazily inquisitive stare.

"About an hour. Maybe two."

"You look as tired as I feel."

He merely nodded in response, not wishing to point out that it was Gwaine himself, or rather Gwaine and Millie, who were responsible for his loss of sleep. "What's the plan?" he asked instead, as Nessie quietly set a tankard of ale and a plate of food in front of the other man.

"Nice place, great food, good company. Thought we might stay a while, if it's all the same to you."

Why couldn't it be enough?

That was the question Lancelot kept asking himself as he wandered aimlessly through the peaceful streets of Oakview a few weeks later. He was among friends in a safe place, one that was far more comfortable now that he'd acquired a room for himself at the inn. At least for a while, he'd be able to sleep in the same bed every night, then wake up to familiar faces in the morning. He had more than enough savings to ensure there'd be no need to worry throughout the winter.

Indeed, there wasn't a single cause for anxiety to be found.

Why was he so restless then? Why couldn't he ignore the overwhelming desire to escape that had begun to haunt him day and night?

But deep down, the answer to those questions was painfully obvious. It was the lack of purpose that was driving him mad... mad with boredom, mad with the need to do something more than revolve his life around his own needs and comforts. It might suit Gwaine to live that way... Gwaine, who was almost shamefully content to divide his time between the tavern and Millie's bed, completely fulfilled by self-indulgence.

But for Lancelot, it wasn't so easy. The satisfaction he craved could only be found in serving others, in doing something meaningful with his life.

Later that evening, he returned to the inn to receive a letter from Merlin, something that had become one of his greatest pleasures during the seemingly endless winter of inactivity. He accepted it from Nessie with a word of thanks, then headed upstairs and wrapped himself in a blanket as the icy wind howled outside the window of his tiny room.

Dear Lancelot,

There's so much I wish I could tell you, and so little I can say without... well, you know my reasons.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother writing at all, but even if I can't explain everything that has happened, I have to hope that somehow, you'll understand me anyway. You might not know all my secrets, but you know the most important one, and that's enough. It has to be, at least for now.

So many things have changed. I've lost things I didn't even know I had. Chances for understanding, for love, to not be alone anymore. I tried to hold onto them, to save them, but I couldn't do it. I just couldn't.

I hope this letter doesn't alarm you. Arthur, Gw... everyone you might worry about is safe.

And as for me, I'm just now beginning to realize how much it will cost me to do what I must do. It seems like every day, anything I might want for myself slips through my fingers like water. I don't know how to stop it, or even if it would be possible if I tried.

Don't be concerned about me, Lancelot. I'm just feeling sorry for myself.


Lancelot frowned as he rummaged through his satchel, retrieving his quill and parchment. Merlin had sounded a bit downtrodden in his previous few letters, but that had been nothing compared with the hopelessness contained in the message he currently held in his hand. The Merlin he'd always known was optimistic, never one to shy away in the face of adversity. Of course, with the gifts he had, there were many obstacles that could easily be overcome... obstacles that would prove impossible for any ordinary man.

So why...? But then suddenly, he understood. He and Merlin were similar in a lot of ways, something he'd always recognized even if it had never been openly acknowledged. It was in both their natures to sacrifice for others, to use their talents to create a safer and more just world for the people they cared about. Lancelot might not know what it was like to live with magic, but he certainly knew the frustration of feeling a strong sense of obligation and not being able to act on it.

Merlin was forced to pretend his magic didn't exist, often when it was desperately needed. And Lancelot had a lifetime of training he couldn't seem to use for the protection of others, no matter how hard he tried.

Yes, he understood all too well.

Dear Merlin,

I know there are many things you can't say in a letter, but I know how you feel. There's nothing worse than feeling helpless, especially when those we care about are in danger.

You may not be able to tell me what has happened, but the way it's affected you speaks for itself.

You mustn't lose faith. Whatever has been lost, however you feel you've failed, you know as well as I do that you did the best you could. You can't blame yourself for things that are beyond your power, nor can you fault yourself for what others can't see.

Your time will come, Merlin. One day, you'll be recognized for who you truly are, and whatever you've suffered along the way will make that day even brighter when it finally arrives. Then you'll have it in your power to put the wrong things right, probably far more than you and I could possibly dream of as we are right now.

My only wish is that I'll have the privilege of being there to see what you will become.

In the meantime, you must be patient... and try to remember that there's at least one person who sees the truth, and will always feel honored that he was one of the first. You are not alone.


Feeling better than he had in weeks, Lancelot sealed the letter and set it on the bedside table, then blew out the candle and drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter 58: Relinquishment

"Arthur!" Gwen exclaimed in surprise as she opened the door to find the cloaked figure standing on her doorstep.

He cast a surreptitious look up and down the deserted street, then glanced at her anxiously. "May I come in for a minute?"

"I... yes, of course," she stuttered, then stepped aside to let him pass.

When she turned around, he was standing by the kitchen table, the place where they'd shared a companionable meal together more than a year before. So much had changed since then; it seemed odd that the room looked exactly the same.

"Would you like...?"

"I wanted to..."

Arthur shook his head as she let out a self-conscious laugh. "You first," he said graciously.

"Would you like something to drink?"

"Just water, please."

She ignored the way he seated himself at the table without being invited, figuring the "please" in his request had earned him a blind eye for the moment. "Here you go," she said with a smile, settling herself in the chair across from him. "Now, what can I do for you, Arthur?"

"Guinevere, I wanted to..." he trailed off, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "That is, I wanted to thank you for what you said. You know, when Gaius was almost..."


He winced.

"I'm sorry," she hastily apologized. "I didn't mean to be so blunt about it."

"No, you're right. And you were right to call me out on my actions. I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't forced me to acknowledge my conscience. To tell you the truth, I... well, I still don't know how to forgive myself for..."

She interrupted in a soft, sympathetic voice. "You would've done the right thing either way, Arthur. I know you would have."

"Like I did with your father?" he said, meeting her eyes directly for the first time since he'd arrived.

This time, it was Gwen who winced.

"Forgive me," he murmured, reaching out to touch her hand ever so briefly before pulling his fingers away. "It's just... I didn't come here to apologize for what almost happened with Gaius. It was unfortunate, yes, but what you said... about your... about Tom..."

"I don't blame you for that, Arthur," Gwen said gently, even though there was some tiny part of her that did.

He was obviously having a similar thought as he stared back at her with eyes full of skepticism. "Really?"

She hesitated. "I... it doesn't matter, Arthur. It's too late now. Besides, I know you would've never wanted it to happen, and that if you'd felt like you had the power to change it, you would've done so."

"I should have," he said sadly. "I'm going to be king someday, Guinevere. I shouldn't be afraid to act on my conscience under any circumstances. I just wish there was something I could do to make it right."

"There is. Don't let my father's death be in vain. Act in his memory, and for others who've already suffered, when you show mercy in the future. He... I think he would've appreciated that."

"And you?"

"Don't do anything for my sake, Arthur. Do it because it's the right thing to do."

He nodded and looked away, seeming fixated on a crack in the wall near the window. They sat in awkward silence for a few minutes; Gwen was sure he'd make up an excuse and leave, but he didn't. Desperately, she cast about for something else to say, some other topic of conversation that might be appropriate.

"I saw Merlin..."

"Guinevere, I wanted to..."

She shook her head in exasperation, smiling at his embarrassed chuckle. "We've got to stop doing that."

"I know," he said, the expression on his face suddenly becoming serious. There was something in his eyes, something so plaintive that she found herself avoiding his gaze as he spoke. "I miss talking to you. It was so much easier before..."

Before Lancelot. Arthur didn't need to say it out loud; they both knew exactly what he meant.

"That's in the past," she said firmly, wondering if there'd ever be a day when she'd be able to think about it without feeling a sharp ache inside. "You can still talk to me, Arthur. I'm the same person I've always been."

He sucked in a deep breath. "Well, if it helps for me to say it, I forgive you."

She stared at him in confusion. "Forgive me? For what?"

"For what you did."

"And exactly what did I do?"

The surprise on his face was so genuine that she found herself seething with anger in response. It transformed into something unpleasantly familiar, that wounded, sullen look he'd aimed at her from across the campfire as she'd sat close to Lancelot on their final night together. There was that same hint of betrayal in his eyes, only now, it was combined with an infuriating amount of disbelief.

"You... you and Lancelot."

She closed her eyes against the sting of hearing his name. "And you believe that something I need to be forgiven for?"

"Perhaps not," Arthur said coldly as he rose to his feet. "I shouldn't have come here. You obviously don't... I should go."

Emotion boiled up in Gwen's chest, a blinding hot mixture of pain and fury that was the culmination of everything she'd suffered since that night. Arthur, seeking to blame her for a crime she'd never committed, and then Lancelot doing the very same thing. Both of them were so willing to find her at fault for betrayals that didn't even exist. One of them had abandoned her and shattered her heart for this reason; the other had subjected her to months of guilt inducing stares and awkward silences, something she now realized had been a form of punishment.

Neither had simply asked her how she felt or what she wanted from them. One was beyond her reach now, but the other...

"How dare you?" she said, her voice shaking with rage. "How dare you treat me as if I betrayed you, Arthur? You... did you think I was yours, just because you had feelings for me? Yes, there was some attraction between us. I won't deny that. But that didn't obligate me to be faithful to you! Did I ever promise to be? Did you ever ask? No, you didn't. You kissed me once, and then told me nothing could ever happen because of your father. So how can you treat me like... how can you blame me for...?"

He stood stiffly with his hand on the doorknob, staring at her in silence.

"Well, say something."

"What would you like me to say?" he responded quietly. "I just assumed that you..."

Gwen shook her head as she sank back into her chair. "Unbelievable. How can anyone be so arrogant?"

Arthur looked as if she'd slapped him. "Arrogant? Is that what you think of me, Guinevere? Well, it wasn't arrogance. I was hopeful. Maybe my feelings for you led me to believe there was something more between us, but it had nothing to do with my pride. But you're right. It wasn't my place to blame you when you never... I'm sorry."


"I've never really... cared about someone before," he continued in a rush. "I didn't know how to handle it and I just... I was hurt and confused. But I never meant to..."

At that, Gwen felt the last of her anger drain away. "It's all right," she interrupted him tiredly. "It was obviously all just a big misunderstanding. It doesn't matter now."

"It does to me. Regardless of what happened, my... feelings haven't changed."

He took a step closer, gazing at her intently with honest blue eyes. There was something vulnerable in his expression, as well as a hint of what could very well have been fear as he waited for her reaction. What could she say? She hadn't been sure of what she'd wanted the first time he'd shown interest in her, and after Lancelot...

"Arthur, I don't know if I... I don't know what to tell you."

"I'm not asking you to feel anything that isn't already in your heart," he paused for a moment, brushing at a nonexistent spot of dirt on his cloak before he continued. "But if it's truly over between you and Lancelot, I'd like to believe I might still have a chance. I'm not in a position to make any promises either; the future seems impossible for more reasons than I can count. But that doesn't change my feelings."

"What are you asking me, Arthur?" she said, careful to keep her tone gentle.

He let out a long, shuddering sigh before raising his eyes to hers. "I don't know. Just to... consider me, I suppose. Spend time with me when it's possible for us to do so. Let me be close to you and see what happens. See how you feel. That is, of course, if there isn't anyone else."

"There isn't anyone else," she whispered. And it was true, at least in the sense that there wasn't even a ghost of a chance she'd ever be with Lancelot the way she had once hoped for. It didn't seem necessary to mention that somewhere deep inside, she still loved him no matter what he'd done.

Arthur looked so overjoyed it nearly broke her heart, yet it was obvious he was being sincere when he said, "I'm sorry, Guinevere. If I did anything to..."

"It wasn't your fault. It just wasn't... it wasn't meant to be, I guess. I'd prefer not to speak of it anymore."

"I can accept that," he said kindly. "I should be getting back now, but I hope you'll at least consider what I'm asking. I'm not expecting anything, I just want to be around you. Will you allow that?"

After only the slightest hesitation, she nodded her head.

It was such a small request, entirely reasonable, and even so flattering that she couldn't possibly think of a refusal. And in truth, she really didn't want to turn him down. Between losing Lancelot and her growing estrangement from Morgana, her days had been filled with a deep sense of loneliness. Having someone around who wanted to be close to her, a person who cared and wasn't afraid to show it, was something she desperately needed.

For that, she could ignore the suspicion that Arthur's feelings ran much deeper than her own.

But still, she felt something for him. There was a great deal of warm affection, even tenderness that came upon her whenever he was around. And once she let go of her anger over the way he'd reacted to her supposed betrayal with Lancelot, it was surprisingly easy to allow those emotions to dominate her perception.

Easy... that was the reason she eventually allowed their relationship to grow. It was soothing to a heart that was still broken and simply needed a respite. Arthur never inspired overwhelming feelings that were equal parts exhilarating and terrifying as Lancelot had done. No, her attachment to him was calm, rational, with no trace of desperate passion or maddening hunger.

She knew she'd be just fine without him, and that was the reason she was able to be with him.

He was a good man. True, he could be exceedingly arrogant at times, downright oblivious more often than not, but there was a great deal of comfort in his predictability. She never had to worry he'd desert her, nor that he'd suddenly decide to go his own way without her consent. That was the difference between Arthur and every other man she'd ever loved – he depended on her to steer him in the right direction, rather than deciding what that should be for himself.

When she first realized she loved him, her feelings had a lot to do with simple gratitude. After all, he was her distraction, her escape, a healing balm spread over a ravaged heart. Her world had been so cold during those painful months of isolation after Lancelot's departure... Arthur was the warm blanket she'd wrapped around herself to ward off the chill.

But then deeper emotions gradually began to overpower the fear of loneliness he held at bay, transforming into something that went well beyond a simple need for companionship. It wasn't just about a need to be filled anymore, nor the feeling of safety he represented. She loved him.

If that love was more nurturing than passionate, more driven by friendship than desire, perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing. And as she began to understand her own power... the ability to shape him into a better man, promising a better kingdom for them all someday, it mattered less and less what she might be lacking for herself. She could ignore the wordless longings, burying them somewhere deep inside during nights that still seemed far more lonely than they should've been when she had someone to love.

Arthur was real. He standing right in front of her with his hand outstretched, representing a future that was full of possibility. For him, and for the hope of everything that might lay ahead, Gwen had to put aside the ghosts of her past. Somehow, she had to learn to silence the whisperings of a heart that still wept for things that could never be.

Chapter Text

Chapter 59: A Greater Purpose

Dear Merlin,

I was relieved to hear that you received my last letter. It seems you, Arthur, and the knights have journeyed across the kingdom and back these past few months, and I can only ever hope that the last destination you've given me is the correct one. It's easy for me to understand similar comments you've made in the past now, though your reasons for being constantly on the move are far more noble than mine, of course.

Has there been any news of the Lady Morgana? I wish...

Lancelot hesitated, his quill hovering over the half finished letter as he debated on what to say next. Corresponding with Merlin while he was away from Camelot had provided complications, but it had also made it easier for both of them to speak freely. Merlin had been able to give him the basic details, at least – Morgana had been kidnapped, and there'd been no news of her whereabouts since the day she'd disappeared.

What Lancelot wanted to say was, "I wish I could be at you and Arthur's side during this quest."

After the long months of inactivity, the constant feeling of uselessness that had chafed at him throughout the winter, he had the overwhelming desire to pack his things and seek them out whether his assistance was wanted or not. It felt terribly wrong to be sitting idle in some cozy room half a kingdom away while those he cared for were out in the snows facing countless dangers.

And the Lady Morgana... why had she been taken? Merlin had been rather evasive on that point, the few words he'd said on the matter coming across as vague and strange. What had he meant when he'd written, "Some people are not what they seem?"

Lancelot shook his head, banishing the thought. It didn't matter; the Morgana he remembered had been a sweet and honorable woman. Whatever the circumstances of her disappearance had been, she surely hadn't deserved to be taken from her home; remembering all the kindness she'd shown him during his time in Camelot, he regretted his inability to return the favor by assisting in her rescue.

"I wish you'd allow me to come and fight beside you," he wanted to write.

Unfortunately, Merlin had already discouraged it. Lancelot had offered his services when he'd first been told the news, only to receive a letter in return that had simply stated, "No, not for this."

Why? A quest to save the life of someone who was so important to the king, and to all who loved her? Surely that was sufficient cause to accept any support that might lead to her safe return?

But when he'd voiced these thoughts, Merlin had been adamant. "Enough men are risking their lives as it is. Stay where you are. I know you want to help, but trust me. This isn't the time."

With a heavy sigh, he lowered the quill and finished the letter:

I wish you and Arthur the best of luck in your search. Please keep me informed whenever you can, and until then, take care of yourself.

Your faithful friend,

"Merlin?" Gwen said in a soft voice, stepping carefully around Sir Leon's sleeping body as she held out the folded square of parchment. "Another letter for you."

He accepted it with a tired nod of thanks, studying the nondescript block lettering for only the briefest instant before hastily tucking it away in the pocket of his jacket.

Gwen looked at him curiously, as she always did whenever one of these letters arrived. She immediately recognized the spidery scrawl of Gaius, of course, and she had learned to discern the neat script of Merlin's mother. But she couldn't begin to guess the identity of the person who sent the plainly labeled letters, and with a frequency that surprised her.

At first, she had teased him about having a secret lover waiting for him back in Camelot, hoping his embarrassment over the idea would lead him to reveal who it was that was really writing to him. But he'd looked so sad when she'd said it that she'd dropped the subject entirely.

They were all sad these days, the weary collection of would-be rescuers that trudged ever onward through the snow and biting winds. As the weeks passed, and then the months, their numbers had slowly dwindled in their fruitless search for the Lady Morgana. Some had lost their lives during the countless minor skirmishes they'd encountered on their journey, but others had succumbed to sickness brought on by the unusually cold winter.

But whenever word was sent back to the king, detailing their losses or even pleading for permission to call off the search until spring, the response was always clear:

"We must not cease our efforts until she is found."

Gwen sniffed as she crawled beneath her thin blanket, settling herself as close to Arthur as she dared without arousing suspicion. It was easy for Uther to be so absolute on the matter, safe and warm in his distant palace. He couldn't know how his men suffered from the constant cold and hunger they endured, along with illnesses and wounds that were never given a chance to properly heal as they continued on through merciless weather and harsh terrain.

Despite the uncomfortable conditions, however, Gwen was glad she'd come along. When Uther had commanded her to accompany the men, insisting Morgana would have need of her maidservant when she was found, Gwen had eagerly agreed, ignoring Arthur's protests. Caring for Morgana had filled her days and nights back in Camelot for as long as she could remember; without her, what would she have done with herself if she'd been left behind?

Uther had been deaf to his son's complaints. Gwen was merely a servant, after all, and just as the king had never raised an eyebrow when Merlin traveled with Arthur into dangerous situations, unarmed and untrained, he didn't seem to have any concern over Gwen's safety either.

Arthur had eventually submitted to his father's will, though numerous arguments had erupted as soon as they'd passed beyond the city walls. He'd tried to send her back at first, insisting the king would never notice her presence as long as she avoided the palace. When that hadn't worked, he'd led their party to Ealdor, clearly planning to depart without her in the gray hours just before dawn.

Hunith had given her an understanding smile as she'd watched her carefully arrange the sacks of grain to look like a sleeping body, then creep out the door to wait beside the horses as Arthur began to stir.

When attempts to outsmart her had failed, Arthur had resorted to a series of heartfelt pleas and numerous concerns regarding her safety. It was no use, she'd told him with an edge of steel in her gentle voice. Morgana was her friend, too; she had every right to take part in the journey, particularly since she was there under the king's orders.

Arthur's final tactic had been to search for some way Gwen might be hindering their rescue efforts. If she'd been slower than the others or had tired more easily, had taken ill or otherwise interfered with their progress, he would've had an excuse to send her home with the king's blessing. But to his initial surprise and then grudging respect, she'd never faltered, even when seasoned knights had struggled with the relentless pace.

More than that, she'd proven to be an invaluable help in any number of ways. Together, she and Merlin had managed to keep the men reasonably well fed, washed and mended clothing, and tended to injuries far more effectively than the knights themselves were capable of doing.

Gwen shivered beneath her threadbare blanket as she studied their sleeping faces, the men who'd become her constant companions throughout the last few months. They were all much too thin, their features haggard even in slumber, filthy and exhausted as they slept on the cold, hard floor in the deserted hall.

And yet, not one among them had voiced a single complaint during the harrowing journey. Not Sir Leon, who struggled on day after day with a pronounced limp from a half healed wound he'd taken when a stray arrow had embedded itself in his shin. Not Sir Bedwyr, whose body convulsed under a painful fit of coughing even as she watched. Not Merlin, who didn't even have the protection of a thick woolen cloak to shelter him from the frigid winds.

Most of all, Arthur himself never faltered, refusing to show his men anything but an optimistic determination that left Gwen in awe of his unwavering strength. She knew the truth, of course... he sought her out whenever they could steal a moment alone, his head drooping wearily on her shoulder as he whispered about his doubts and fears. But the fact that he felt them so deeply and could still manage to put on such a brave face for the others only strengthened her faith in him.

Arthur needed her, and he wasn't afraid to show it. It was an intoxicating feeling... holding him, stroking his hair away from his forehead, soothing away his insecurities with reassuring words. Perhaps their relationship lacked a different kind of passion, acted upon physically with nothing than a few sweetly pleasant kisses, but the sense of security Gwen found in its place elicited its own devotion.

The way Arthur's dependence made her feel capable and in control brought her a surprising amount of satisfaction, as if taking care of him somehow guaranteed that everything else would fall into place. She could feel her strength flowing through him, bolstering his efforts to sustain the men through a quest that was so much bigger than she could comprehend.

It had become about more than just finding Morgana and returning her to safety. Despite herself, Gwen began to imagine what else might be possible through her bond with Arthur. She'd already inspired him to treat commoners with more respect, to intervene on any number of occasions to prevent injustice, and to question his actions where he might not have done so otherwise. He listened to her, perhaps more than any other; what could that mean if she became his queen someday?

Sometimes, these thoughts would lead Gwen to a bittersweet place. Did she truly love Arthur for himself... or was it merely for all the things he represented?

It had all been so clear with Lancelot, a fierce, overwhelming love that had made it irrelevant whether he'd been an honorable knight or a humble commoner without a thing in the world to offer but himself. She'd wanted him regardless of his circumstances... but would she have chosen Arthur if he was just an ordinary man?

In the end, however, she always pushed these thoughts from her mind. Did it really matter? She'd only ever love one man the way she'd loved Lancelot, and he was beyond her reach now. Why not devote herself to Arthur... and yes, everything he represented, too? Maybe there was a greater purpose for her life than her own needs and passion, a future where those things would cease to matter compared with what she might be able to do for others.

Glancing over at Arthur as he let out a loud snore, she smiled to herself before turning away on her side. Reality certainly wasn't as romantic as her dreams, but it still held a world of possibility.

Lancelot awoke at dawn with a single, overwhelming thought that drove him to rise and pull on the nearest pair of trousers with a surprising amount of urgency. He splashed cold water on his face, finished dressing, and packed all of his possessions in his satchel, which he slung over one shoulder as he bounded down the stairs.

Nessie was seated behind the bar, staring at him quizzically as he rummaged in his pockets for his depleted supply of gold. He was relieved to see her; although he didn't have the patience to linger long enough to write a letter, he hadn't relished the idea of disappearing yet again without saying goodbye.

"Leaving again?" she asked him archly.

"Yes," he said, as he withdrew a handful of coins and counted out the proper sum.

Nessie frowned. "Put your money away."

"You don't understand," he explained as he laid the payment on the bar. "I'm leaving for good."

She rolled her eyes. "I kind of figured that," she said, waving a lazy hand at his satchel. "Even if you weren't carrying all your worldly possessions on your back, I've seen it coming for months. You're bored out of your mind here. Now put your money away."

Lancelot made no move to collect the coins. "But I owe you..."

"Nothing," she interrupted as she rose to her feet and filled a tankard of mead, pushing it in his direction. "Now put it away or I'll throw it out in the snow."

"Thank you," he said, pausing to take a long drink before he gave in and slipped the coins back in his pocket. "You've been very kind, and..."

"I'm twice as well off as I was before you came along," she interrupted with an impatient sniff. "Nothing kind about repaying a debt."

Lancelot gave her an indulgent smile that made her cheeks turn red. "If you say so. Would you please tell the others that I'll send word as soon as I can?"

Setting down the tankard with a final murmur of gratitude, he started to turn away before he was halted by another command.

"Hold it!"

He stopped in his tracks. No matter how anxious he was to be on his way, there was no ignoring the determination in that voice.

Nessie bustled over and planted herself firmly in front of the door with her fleshy arms folded over her ample chest. "Go find yourself a table."

"But I have to..."

She silenced him with a dangerous look. "You have to leave. Yes. But I'm not letting you walk out of here without a decent breakfast inside you. Now go sit down."

Lancelot sighed in resignation as he obeyed, grudgingly admitting to himself that she was right as his stomach growled. He devoured the ham and eggs she set in front of him without complaint, grateful for her relative silence as she watched him eat.

He was glad she stuck to her usual policy of not asking questions, though he felt guilty for conveniently ignoring the avid curiosity in her eyes. How could he possibly explain the sudden, inescapable impulse that had overtaken his senses? He hardly even understood it himself.

No, what he needed was time to sort out his thoughts; fortunately, there'd be plenty of room for reflection on the long journey to find Merlin and Arthur.

Chapter Text

Chapter 60: An Unexpected Detour

The answers Lancelot had been hoping for never quite came.

Oh, he understood why he wanted to assist Merlin and Arthur in their quest to find Morgana. His determination to serve, to do something useful with his skills, had been a lifelong ambition, after all. Nor was there any confusion in a particularly strong desire to use his strengths to help those he cared for.

But why was the need suddenly so overwhelming that he was choosing to ignore Merlin's insistence that he should not come?

Spring thaws had fallen over the landscape, turning the roads into treacherous pathways of mud and ice. He rode at a slow, painstaking pace that nearly drove him mad with impatience, bringing him further frustration when he had to dismount on several occasions and lead his horse through a particularly deep patch of sludge.

Why? It wasn't the first time he'd been aware that Merlin and Arthur had undertaken a dangerous mission; in the past, he'd merely regretted his absence, trusting Arthur's formidable skills and Merlin's powerful gifts to prevail against any foe they might encounter. He'd certainly never felt such a compelling urge to rush to their sides no matter the cost.

Was it due to his long months of inactivity, all those monotonous days and restless nights he'd spent longing for the chance to do something worthwhile with himself? It must be, for the only other explanation was that he'd sensed some greater threat on the horizon. But how could that be the case? Their quest was to save a lone woman who'd been kidnapped; they weren't facing an imminent invasion or some other dire threat to the kingdom.

Lancelot shook his head, certain there couldn't be any deeper cause than the simple need to fight. It had been much too long, and after all, what other opportunities did he have to offer his service?

He'd just dismounted in a secluded alcove when he heard it. Almost as if his inner desires had conjured the sounds, there was a distinct clash of metal upon metal in the distance. A cry of pain echoed through the trees, followed by a furious roar, the words indistinguishable across the distance that separated him from the scene of combat.

There was no room for thought as he launched himself back in the saddle and took off in the direction of the noise, but he at least had the forethought to remain concealed for a few precious minutes as he took measure of the situation, trying to distinguish friend from foe before entering the fray.

The first thing he noticed was a large wagon, tilted at an angle with one wheel sunk deep in the mud. It was filled with bales of wool, several of which had toppled over into the road as the wagon swayed back and forth under the power of the pair of horses who were straining against the tethers in an effort to escape the brutal scene.

And it was brutal... five men already lay dead, blood from numerous wounds spilling across the melting patches of snow that covered the ground. Four of them had a rough appearance he instantly recognized – animal skins, mismatched bits of armor, and a hard, hungry look that only meant one thing. Bandits.

The fifth man was dressed in a uniform of sorts – simple clothing, but he'd obviously been clean and well groomed before the fight. There were two still standing who were wearing something similar – a soft faced, slightly overweight man whose bottom lip trembled as he struck out at one of the remaining bandits with a stick, and an unusually tall man with close cropped hair, who fought with a strength and speed that Lancelot found impressive.

He'd obviously stumbled across the scene of an attempted robbery, and with that realization, the decision was made.

Unsheathing his sword in one fluid motion, he burst through the thicket where he'd been hiding, choosing the bandit who'd just aimed what would have surely been a fatal blow at the smaller of the two defenders. The lean, rawboned man with scraggly red hair and a noticeable absence of teeth left Lancelot almost disappointed with the lack of challenge he offered. As soon as he blocked the first wildly aimed blow, the bandit was left wide open; Lancelot seized the opportunity he'd been given.

A helpless gurgle, the heavy thud of a body hitting the ground, and then only four remained... no, three. The larger defender had the bandit he'd been fighting by the neck, and with a quiet, yet angry grunt, he lifted him straight off his feet and sent him crashing into a nearby tree.

"Get back," Lancelot muttered to the smaller man who stared back at him in awe, never noticing as another bandit crept up beside him and aimed a brutal looking mace at his head. The blow never connected; Lancelot brought his sword down with such savage force that the opponent lay lifeless at his feet before his mace had even landed harmlessly in the brush.

He spun around, relishing the sweetly familiar, focused energy that flowed through his body as his eyes searched for another enemy. There was only one left, a grizzled bear of a man who crept toward the larger of his new allies with deadly intent in his eyes. He brandished a heavy club, wicked and bulbous, with a thick iron head that was covered in spikes.

At first, it seemed as if the other man could handle the bandit, but then he staggered, his movements clumsy and slow as he lifted his sword.

Lancelot rushed forward, coming between the two men as he shoved hard and attempted to knock the final opponent off balance. It was a useless effort; as solid as the trees surrounding them, the bandit didn't so much as sway on his feet as he twisted around and aimed his club at Lancelot's head in one smooth, practiced motion.

Ducking to avoid impact, Lancelot whirled around and had taken several quick steps backward before the other man managed to steady himself after his missed swing. The bandit came at him with a roar of fury, and then it was over... Lancelot shook his head in disgust as he withdrew his blade and let the body fall to the ground, strangely disappointed at how quickly the fight had ended.

But at the moment, there were more important things to worry about. He turned back to the two men he'd assisted, frowning as he watched the smaller of the two attempting to wrap a torn bit of fabric around a nasty looking gash in the larger man's thigh as the latter slumped heavily against the wagon wheel.

"T-thank you," the smaller man stuttered, extending a pudgy hand before realizing it was covered in blood. Lancelot stopped him as he started to withdraw it, however, taking it in his own in a friendly grip.

He shook his head and smiled. "There's no need to thank me."

"I-I don't know what we would've done if you hadn't helped us," the little man continued, his soft blue eyes suspiciously damp as he stared up at Lancelot. "I'm Gordy, the driver, and this here is Percival. I wish you could have met Landry, but..." he paused as he stared sadly at the uniformed body on the ground. "It seems he's no longer with us."

"My name is Lancelot, and I'm very sorry for your loss."

Gordy nodded his thanks, then looked around at the wreckage. "What are we supposed to do?" he asked, gesturing helplessly at the collection of bodies, the mired wagon, and at Percival, who was obviously struggling to remain conscious. As strong as the larger man appeared, he was clearly losing the battle; Lancelot reached out with steadying arms just as his legs gave out, employing all his strength to shift him onto the closest bale of wool.

Lancelot had never considered treating wounds to be one of his greatest skills, but was sure his own efforts would be more effective than the meager scraps of fabric that were tied loosely around the gash in Percival's thigh. Gordy called after him in a panic as he rushed away, but he was back in the blink of an eye, tearing one of his own shirts into thick, sturdy strips.

He wrapped the makeshift bandages tightly around the wound, only mildly satisfied when the bleeding began to slow. Percival needed help, and quickly; he was fully unconscious now, his face white as a sheet as his chest rose and fell with shallow, labored breaths.

"Where did you come from? Is it far?"

Gordy wrung his hands anxiously as he stared at Percival. "J-just a couple of miles back down the road. Not far, but the wagon is stuck," he paused, giving Lancelot a meaningful look as if he hadn't noticed.

"I know," he responded as patiently as he could manage under the circumstances. "Please, just tell me where it is and who I should talk to when I get there. I'll go for help."

"Big place. Up on a hill beyond the trees. Can't miss it... nothing else around these parts but little cottages. Speak to the master. He's Percival's father. Yes, he'll know what to do."

Lancelot nodded briefly, already halfway to his horse when the little man let out a cry of alarm.

"What about me?"

"Stay with him. Try to keep him warm."

Gordy's lower lip began to tremble. "But it's growing dark!" he protested, even as he pulled off his own cloak and tucked it around Percival's unconscious body. "What if more bandits come? What if...?"

But Lancelot was already galloping through the murky twilight, straining his eyes to discern any obstacles ahead as he whispered a silent prayer that the horse wouldn't stumble, that he'd make it in time, that he'd be able to return with the help Percival so desperately needed before it was too late.

He veered sharply to the left when he saw it, a narrow path that led up to the small fortress that stood on the hill like a ghostly sentinel. And then he was pounding across the drawbridge, throwing himself off his mount, wondering all the while why he'd encountered no opposition upon entering the lands of the clearly wealthy man. He ran right up to the door and pounded urgently, gasping for breath as he attempted to recover from his frantic ride.

It swung open almost immediately to reveal a sallow faced woman with lanky brown hair. "Yes?" she said a little coldly.

"I-I need to speak with the master."

She frowned. "Who are you?"

"It doesn't matter," he managed between pants. "Please, it's important. It concerns..."

"I'll decide what's important," she said sourly, to Lancelot's immense frustration. But just as he drew a deep breath and prepared to argue his case, a low, surprisingly reassuring voice echoed through the hall.

"Who is it, my love?"

Lancelot knew him for Percival's father in an instant. He was an older version of his son, unusually tall and broad with a muscular physique. His graying hair was a little longer and he wore a small beard, but other than that, there was very little difference between them.

"Your son is badly injured!" he burst out without hesitation. "I came upon them on the road... they were being attacked... bandits... I helped as much as I could, but your son, Percival, he... he took a wound to the leg."

If the older man was alarmed, he didn't show it. A grim determination had settled over his face as Lancelot spoke, and by the time he was finished, they were already out the door and on their way to the stables.

"Shouldn't we bring more men?" Lancelot questioned as a young stable boy quickly saddled his master's mount.

"Fresh horse for our friend here, too," the older man commanded. "Tend to the other as soon as we're gone."

He gave Lancelot a meaningful look as he climbed into the saddle. "There are no men to bring."

Percival had somehow grown even more pale by the time they'd reached the site of the attack. Gordy let out a cry of relief as he recognized his master, but the older man barely acknowledged him as he rushed to his son's side.

"He's lost a lot of blood," he commented half to himself after a cursory examination. "I think he'll make it though, if we can get him back to the fortress. You there... I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name. Lancelot? Yes, Lancelot, untether the horses if you would? We can't leave them out here in the cold. Gordy can ride with you while you lead them back, and I'll carry Percival with me."

"But what about the wagon? The wool?" Gordy protested frantically, as Lancelot hurried off to do as he'd been asked. "What about Landry?"

"Landry is dead," the older man said shortly. "We'll have to retrieve his body in the morning. The rest is... unimportant."

Lancelot didn't allow himself to feel the heavy weight of exhaustion until their small party had arrived back at the fortress. Quietly, he watched as Percival's father lifted his son in his arms, carrying him up the stairs as easily as if he'd been a child. When they'd departed, he stood awkwardly in the empty hall, resisting the urge to lean heavily against one of the rough pillars.

"Something to eat?" the woman spoke from behind, startling him with her sudden appearance. It was the man's wife, making her Percival's mother, though she looked surprisingly young to have a son that must be close to his own age. She didn't smile, nor was there any warmth in her eyes, but Lancelot didn't detect anything that could be construed as dislike either.

"Yes, please."

Wordlessly, she turned and strode away, leaving him no choice but to follow. They entered a modest dining hall dominated by a long table; she jerked her head at one of the empty places that was already set with a large bowl of hot stew, a mug of cider, and a thick chunk of black bread.

"Thank you," Lancelot said gratefully as he sat down and immediately reached for a spoon. "This is very kind."

But when he looked up, she was already gone.

He must have fallen asleep for a while, the combination of deep exhaustion, a warm fire, and a full belly making it too difficult not to lay his head on the table and rest his eyes for a brief time. At the sound of a loudly cleared throat, however, he quickly sat up and sputtered an apology with a great deal of embarrassment.

"You have nothing to be sorry about," the man said kindly. "You should have been shown to a chamber already, but my wife has been busy getting the little ones to bed. They've been in quite an uproar since they heard about what happened, as I'm sure you can imagine."

Lancelot rubbed his eyes, attempting to clear away the last of his drowsiness. "How is he? Percival?"

The older man smiled. "He's already doing better. Our healer says he should be confined to bed for a least a couple weeks, which he isn't going to like, but he'll live. What he needs now is rest, and I'd say the same is true for you. But first I wanted to thank you for what you did. Percival told me... not much, but it's clear that you saved his life, and Gordy's, too. If there's any way we can repay you..."

"There's no need…"

"Nonetheless, the least I can do is offer you a comfortable place to sleep. Will you accept that?"

He nodded gratefully, then rose and followed the older man out into the main hall and up a narrow flight of stairs. Before he knew it, he was being ushered into a cozy little chamber with a large bed and wardrobe and thick velvet hangings on the walls.

"Sleep well, Lancelot," the man said with a respectful nod. "By the way, my name is Eorl."

Chapter Text

Chapter 61: The Coming of Spring

"Hello," Lancelot said cautiously, pushing open the door to Percival's chamber.

The other man was sitting up in bed with his injured leg propped up on a small pile of cushions, appearing quite content as he devoured a mouthful of chicken. He swallowed, then smiled and gave Lancelot a friendly nod.

"Have a seat," he said, his voice surprisingly soft for such a large man. "You just missed my father."

"He's been very kind."

Percival nodded. "Good man."

"And your mother..." Lancelot hesitated, feeling as if he should say something polite about the sour faced woman who silently served his meals.

"She's not my mother."

"I'm sorry, I..."

Percival shrugged as he bit into a large chunk of bread. "You didn't know," he mumbled out of the side of his mouth. "My mother died when I was born. Don't remember her."

He nodded, then faltered as he tried to think of something else to say. Percival was pleasant enough, but he didn't seem to be the most talkative of men. Then again, Lancelot supposed anyone would seem quiet after having just spent more than a year with Gwaine.

"We were able to salvage most of the wool," he commented suddenly, as another topic of conversation crossed his mind. "I helped your father haul it in this morning."

"Kind of you," Percival responded, then resumed eating.

Lancelot sat awkwardly for a few minutes, but as he watched Percival out of the corner of his eye, it became clear that the other man was completely at ease with the quiet atmosphere. Gradually, the uncomfortable silence became more of a companionable one, and he only felt the need to speak again when his curiosity got the better of him.

"Why are there no men? Forgive me if I'm being intrusive, but your father, well... he seems to be..." and then he trailed off, unable to imagine how to voice his thoughts without being rude.

Percival seemed to understand. "Plenty of money to pay them, but they've all run off to join King Cenred's army. He promises them grand adventures, glory, power, you name it. My father's only a commoner. He might be a successful one, but all he can give them is fair wages and a steady job. That's not enough... not anymore."

Something dark flitted across his face as he fell silent again.

"So it's just you and Eorl?"

"We had Landry, too, but you saw what happened to him. And Gordy..."

Lancelot hid a smile as Percival smirked knowingly in his direction.

The two men lapsed into another long silence as Percival finished his meal and stared out the window for a time. Suddenly, he spoke again.

"You're a good fighter."

"Thank you. So are you."

"Landry was as loyal as they come, but he wasn't very good. I always told Father he'd be the first to fall in a fight, and I was right. Sad that it happened, but..." He held out his hands helplessly as he trailed off.

"There's really no one else that can be recruited to fill his place?" Lancelot asked, finding it difficult to believe King Cenred's hold over the kingdom could be so strong that a man like Eorl wouldn't be able to hire enough men for his own household guard. "Have you put out word? Checked the inns and taverns in the surrounding area?"

"We've looked everywhere. Cenred takes them all but children and old folks, or men like Gordy who are too useless to lift a sword. Unless you want to work for us, I'm afraid there's no hope for more than what we've got."

Lancelot assumed he was joking at first, but when he looked up, the other man was searching his face intently.

"I-I don't know what to say."

"I've seen you fight," Percival said, his voice suddenly eager. "Skill like yours? You're worth five or six ordinary guards at least. Between me and you, we could..."

He shook his head, remembering his previous urgency to rush to Merlin and Arthur's aid. It had faded somewhat since he'd come to Percival's rescue, but all the same, shouldn't he follow through with his plan?

Obviously anticipating the negative response, the other man looked crestfallen.

That gave Lancelot pause – more than anything, hadn't he just wanted an opportunity to serve, to go where his skills were needed? Who would he be of more use to in this moment... Arthur, who had dozens of knights at his command and hadn't even asked for his help? Or Percival and Eorl, men whom he genuinely liked, who couldn't seem to find enough guards to protect their goods, their lands, their lives?

"I'll do it," he said without further hesitation. As soon as the words left his mouth, he saw the quiet gratitude shining back at him through Percival's eyes, and he knew in his heart it had been the right decision.

"Guinevere, you're going home."

She shook her head vehemently, unsuccessfully attempting to stifle a dry, hacking cough before she spoke. "We've already had this discussion, Arthur. I'm not leaving."

"You're sick," he said firmly.

"It's just a little cold! I'll be over it in a couple of days."

"You've been coughing for a week, Guinevere, and it's not getting any better. No more arguing. This isn't a request, it's an order. Now get some rest."

Gwen wanted to argue, but she was simply too tired to deny the truth any longer. Her throat was scratchy and painful, and when she touched her forehead, it felt unusually warm. All she wanted to do was fall asleep in a warm, soft bed, then wake up to a bowl of hot soup... both luxuries she hadn't had for as long as she could remember.

"Fine," she responded grudgingly, trying in vain to find a comfortable position on the cold, hard ground. "May I return when I've recovered?"

"We'll see."

A week later, she and a trio of weary escorts finally arrived in Camelot. Slumped over her horse's neck with a burning fever and a wracking cough, she hadn't even noticed when the towers of the Citadel had become visible in the distance, nor did she react with anything more than a soft moan when she was lifted from her mount and carried through the familiar corridors that led to the physician's chamber.

Everything that followed was a blur. Pungent tasting potions were spooned into her mouth as she hovered somewhere between sleep and consciousness, followed by steaming broth and teas infused with herbs and honey. She didn't want any of them, but she was too weak to protest or even turn her head away as the elderly man hovered over her with concern marring his already deeply furrowed brow.

Her feverish dreams were vivid, poignant, becoming a far stronger reality than the short intervals she spent awake, dull eyed and silent as she waited for another escape into unconsciousness... away from the smothering heat, the painful spasms of violent coughing, and weakened, aching muscles that cried out in protest if she shifted so much as an inch. She wanted to close her eyes and forget...

Forget, and remember.

Gwen wanted Arthur... or she was supposed to want him, but as the fever burned hotter and any last tendrils of logical thought faded away, she wanted Lancelot. With Arthur, she'd always been the strong one, the caretaker; there was no recollection of a time when it had been the other way around.

She appreciated that dynamic when she was healthy, the way his vulnerability made her feel capable and in control. But ravaged by illness, the memory of his face faded into shadow, replaced by visions of a man whose every look, every touch, had communicated a silent, overwhelming need to take care of her.

If she called for him, or for either man, she never knew it. When she finally awoke, shivering, weak, and drained, there was only Gaius sitting beside her bed, pressing a hand to her cool forehead, then closing his eyes with a sigh of relief.

Gwen had only been out of bed for a few days when the miraculous news arrived – Morgana had been found, alive and relatively unharmed, and would soon be home.

She wandered the streets restlessly as she waited, surprised that spring had come over the land when she'd been far too ill to notice the changing of the seasons. Heavy rains had replaced the driving snow, and a bit of green was gradually conquering the desolate grays and browns of winter. It lightened her heart; spring had always been her favorite season, but this year, it signified so much more than pretty scenery and comfortable temperatures.

It felt like the beginning of a new life... her health restored, her faith renewed, and the people she loved coming home in triumph from a quest that had seemed like it could only end in heartbreak.

When word arrived from Arthur to expect the party in three days, an ecstatic Uther ordered Morgana's chambers scrubbed from top to bottom, a brand new feather mattress laid upon her bed, and a wide array of perfumes, cosmetics, and baskets of succulent fruits to be delivered... anything he could think of that might increase his beloved ward's comfort. He even went so far as to pull Gwen aside and speak to her personally, emphasizing the point that Morgana should want for nothing.

In light of this unusual behavior she was almost able to ignore everything she despised about the king and see him simply as a man. When he spoke to her kindly, his blue eyes shining with happiness, it was difficult to remember him as an unfeeling tyrant.

It wouldn't last, of course, but it was nice for the time being.

Preparing for Morgana's homecoming was exhausting, but it didn't occur to Gwen to mind. Throughout the long, bleak months of fruitless searching, she'd had plenty of time to examine her regrets, all the things she should have done differently. Her greatest fear had been that Morgana would be found dead, and there'd be no way to express how sorry she was for her mistakes, how much she missed the closeness between them.

But now, as if by some miracle, she'd been given another chance, one she had no intention of wasting.

Dear Gwaine,

I must apologize for not speaking to you before I left. I hardly know how to explain my reasoning for departing with such urgency – I just felt it was time to find a new purpose for myself.

I've been hired by a man named Eorl, a wool merchant with a thriving trade who requires men for his household guard. His lands are only two days ride from Oakview. I'll be able to visit from time to time if you've decided to stay on there indefinitely.

If not, perhaps you'd be willing to join me here? The wages are more than fair, and the lodgings are surprisingly comfortable. I'm sure you'd be quite content in his service, just as I am.

Your friend,


There's no chance of that happening. I'd rather hack off my own foot and eat it raw.

I'm leaving here on the morrow, happy to say I have no idea where I'm going next. I'll send word one of these days.


Dear Lancelot,

I'm happy to hear about your new position. Yes, I'm sure it does feel wonderful to have a sword in your hand again, doing what feels natural. That's something no one should ever take for granted.

Yes, it's nice to be back in Camelot, but you know how things can be around here. Hardly a week goes by without some dire threat or mysterious intruder. Sometimes it's impossible to trust the people around you.

Since you asked, Morgana is doing well since her return, and seems to have made a full recovery. Everyone else is also fine.

I hate to cut this short, but Arthur has decided he wants to go hunting tomorrow, which of course means he expects me to wake before dawn. I'll write again soon.


Lancelot frowned as he studied the letters. Was Gwaine angry at him for leaving the way he had, even after his apology? Had things in Oakview gone sour? And why was he so adamantly against the idea of working in the household guard of a common wool merchant, to the point where he seemed almost insulted by the suggestion?

But he couldn't give that matter too much thought; he was far more concerned about the message he'd received from Merlin.

It was frustrating that neither of them could speak freely on certain matters in case the letters were intercepted by someone in the palace. Merlin had a way of dropping vague and often alarming references that Lancelot was left to puzzle over for weeks at a time.

"Sometimes, it's impossible to trust the people around you."

What did Merlin mean by that? he wondered to himself. He thought about all the people he knew his friend to be close to – Arthur, Gaius, Gwen, Morgana... it was impossible to believe any of them would've given him a reason not to trust them.

But then again, there was no way of knowing who else Merlin might've struck up a friendship with over the years. Lancelot could only hope that whatever betrayal he'd been hinting at was nothing serious, and that he'd be able to send word somehow if he needed help.

"Lancelot?" Percival called softly from the other side of the chamber door. "Supper."

He smiled to himself as he rose to his feet and tucked the letters safely away. If Camelot ever needed him, he'd gladly return... but in the meantime, he was content to be exactly where he was.

Chapter Text

Chapter 62: Confusion in Camelot

Unbelievable. Of all the bloody places Gwaine could have ended up, he'd awoken to find himself in Camelot.

True, he'd always wanted to see the famous city. It was one of the few destinations he'd never ventured to during his travels, and it was rumored to be a lovely place. But he still couldn't wrap his head around the strange twist of fate that had led him here... coming to the rescue of two people without even realizing the significance of who they were.

The name "Merlin" had sounded familar during the tavern brawl, but of course, Gwaine hadn't had time to figure out why as long as he'd been distracted by fists flying at his head. Merlin was just an ordinary man, however, and quite a nice one as far as he could tell. Having helped him wasn't the problem.

But the other fellow? Gwaine scowled to himself, shaking his head in disbelief. For all his mighty principles, his lifelong disdain for the nobility, he'd rushed headlong into danger without a second thought to protect Prince Arthur. More than that, he'd taken a knife in the thigh thanks to his inexplicable need to play the hero.

And now, he was recovering in the palace... the palace, of all bloody places?!

Well, what was done was done. Might as well make the best of it.

Gwaine pulled on his boots and rose to his feet, relieved to feel only the slightest twinge of pain when he put his full weight on his injured leg. If nothing else, he'd certainly received excellent care at the hands of Gaius, the old Court Physician. He'd have to remember to thank the man the next time he saw him.

He pushed open the shutters, sighing in relief as the warm summer breeze chased away the stuffiness of the dank bedchamber. A vague memory tickled at his mind, something Lancelot had said about the first time he'd looked out over the city of Camelot. It had been some wistful speech about standing at Merlin's open window and being captivated by the sight, feeling it was his destiny to be exactly where he was at that moment.

At the time, Gwaine had dismissed the words as sentimental nonsense, but suddenly, he could almost understand what his friend had been trying to say.

Camelot was glorious to behold, bathed in golden hues of afternoon sunshine. The sweet fragrances of high summer filled the air – plants in full flower, fertile earth, ripened fruit, and fresh baked bread. Everywhere he looked, the city was practically bursting with life as merchants called out their wares, children laughed and played, and people smiled at one another as they passed on the street.

Feeling the energy of the place thrumming through his bones, he couldn't stand the thought of remaining inside for even a minute longer.

"Good to see you up and about," Gaius remarked with a kind smile as he made his way into the outer chamber. "Are you hungry?"

He was starving, actually, but the need to explore his new surroundings was much more pressing at the moment. Shaking his head with a smile, he said, "I'm fine, thanks. Thought I'd go outside for a bit."

Gaius nodded in approval. "I'm sure some fresh air would do you good. But you might want to put on a shirt first."

Lancelot might be a sentimental fool, but he has good taste, Gwaine acknowledged somewhat grudgingly, walking through the streets of the fascinating city as he took in the sights and sounds with a quiet sense of awe.

He'd spent most of his life roaming from place to place, always worried he'd be missing out on something better if he settled anywhere for long. But it was impossible to feel that way in Camelot… there was something about being here that left a man feeling as if everything he wanted was somehow right within his reach.

And when it came to wanting, for that matter, he couldn't help admiring quite a few women he passed in his aimless wanderings. He winked at fresh young blondes and sultry brunettes, then smiled at a redhead with a smattering of freckles on her pert nose that reminded him a little of Millie. But it was one particularly lovely girl in a lavender dress that finally made him stop and look twice.

It wasn't that she was some ravishing beauty, necessarily. Her tawny skin and wealth of dark curls were certainly attractive, but it was the way she carried herself that set her apart from the rest. There was something almost regal about her, a quality that spoke of depth or wisdom, or... Gwaine wasn't sure what it was, but he felt compelled to speak with her.

He wasn't quite sure how the flower came to be in his hand, but he presented it to her with a flourish. "I believe this belongs to you."

The pretty young woman didn't miss a beat. "I don't think so. It's not my color."

Despite that, she made no move to stop him when he reached out and tucked it in her hair, which he could only take as a sign of encouragement.

"I bet you've got a whole bunch of those to hand out," she said with a knowing smirk.

The next thing he knew, he was making a complete ass out of himself in an effort to amuse her as well as hopefully receive the response he was looking for. It was strange – he had no intention of pursuing her in any serious way, but at the same time, she intrigued him. There was something about her he couldn't quite figure out, yet desperately wanted to understand all the same.

Of course, that feeling could just as easily be attributed to all the herbs Gaius had been treating him with, but did it really matter? He'd never been one to turn his back on a perfectly good opportunity to satisfy his insatiable curiosity.

"Stop it," she muttered as he bowed to her with a grand flourish. "People are staring."

"Not until you tell me your name," he insisted with a mischievous grin.

"It's Gwen."

Gwen? He hesitated for a moment; why was that name so familiar? And why did it seem like he'd known it before she'd even told him? But there wasn't time to reflect on the matter just then… not with her staring at him like he was slightly insane. Oh well, that was probably a fair assessment on her part.

"There," he said in a mild voice. "That wasn't so hard now, was it?"

She was carrying a basket of laundry, which he hadn't even noticed until she tried to move past him, clearly eager to be on her way. Observing that she still looked amused rather than harassed, however, he decided he wasn't ready to let her go just yet. He kicked up the gallantry a bit, offering to carry her washing with the reasoning that no princess should have to perform such menial tasks.

There, he thought to himself smugly. Let's see her try and resist that!

"Unfortunately, I'm not a princess."

She was looking at him with that same expression in her eyes – friendly, amused, perhaps somewhat bewildered, but that was all. Obviously, she wasn't interested, which was fine by him. He was just having a bit of fun, enjoying the unexpected challenge she presented.

Deciding to give it one last try, he treated her to his best charming smile, one that had never failed him in the past. "Ah, but you see," he murmured, lowering his voice to a silky caress that usually had women melting in a puddle at his feet. "You are to me."

Gwen just laughed.

"This isn't working, is it?" he said with an exaggerated sigh, torn between amusement and a fresh wave of curiosity.

"No, not really," she said frankly, though her smile was kind rather than mocking. "But I like that you tried, and that you know when to give up."

He watched her walk away, impressed that she'd been able to both match his wits and resist his charms. Even if she was immune to him in a romantic sense, she was still the kind of woman he'd like to count as a friend.

In the meantime, the day was drawing to a close and he needed to get back to the palace. For one thing, he was famished. And for another, he'd been looking forward to speaking with Merlin again ever since he'd connected the dots in his head... to talk to him about Lancelot, their mutual friend.

Out of nowhere, it hit him. He stumbled on his way up the palace steps as he realized who he'd just been attempting to seduce.

Gwen... Lancelot's Gwen.

Gwaine couldn't come up with a tactful way to broach the subject, so in the end, he just blurted it out. "So," he said casually, setting down his fork as Merlin passed him a jug of ale over supper later that evening. "Have you heard from Lancelot lately?"

The other man started in surprise, and it was only his own quick hand that prevented what would've been quite an unfortunate spill. That was another point in Camelot's favor – the brew was some of the best he'd ever tasted.

"You know Lancelot?" Merlin said, staring at him in amazement. "How?"

"Traveled with him for a while," Gwaine replied nonchalantly, helping himself to another piece of chicken as he spoke. "Up until a few months ago anyway."

"I know who you are. He mentioned you in his letters, though never by name. You helped him quite a lot, didn't you?"

"I suppose you could call it that," he mumbled, taking an unnecessarily savage bite out of a piece of bread. He was still a little miffed at the way Lancelot had taken off without telling him. Perhaps it had been for the best; after all, he would've been the one making a quick exit if the two of them had run into Eorl, of all people. But still, that didn't change the fact that it was rude as hell to leave without so much as a word of farewell.

"Doing fine, last I heard. How about you?"

"Same," Merlin replied briefly, his face softening into a fond smile. "And I'm glad for it. Especially after... well, nevermind."

Gwaine arched an eyebrow. "After giving up his woman because he thought she'd be better off with another man?"

The other man's expression of shock swiftly transformed into one of intense discomfort. "He must've told you a lot about himself."

"He did. Good man, aside from his unfortunate habit of running for the hills without warning. I met her today, you know... Gwen. Now that I've spoken with her, makes even less sense than it did before. Why would he...?"

"Did you say anything?" Merlin cut in sharply, his eyes wide. "About Lancelot, I mean?"

He frowned in confusion in response to the sudden agitation. "No..." he said slowly. "Why?"

"I… it just wouldn't be a good idea, that's all. Lancelot did the right thing, and I'm sure she's beginning to realize that. Better to let her forget what happened, and…"

Unable to help himself, he scoffed. "This is about Arthur again, isn't it?"

"Yes. No. What I mean is, it doesn't matter. Let's not talk about it anymore."

"All right," he said reluctantly, puzzling anew over the strange hold Prince Arthur seemed to have over the people around him. He was far from kind to Merlin – Gwaine had overheard enough of their interactions to come to that conclusion. So why was Merlin almost obsessively devoted to his well-being?

And now this... "Lancelot did the right thing?" Was Merlin actually agreeing with Lancelot's asinine decision to walk away from the woman he loved just because Arthur apparently wanted her? As much as he tried to wrap his head around it, it just didn't make sense.

More than that, it made him strangely uncomfortable. He'd always assumed that the kind of people who mindlessly devoted themselves to the service of royals were well, mindless. But Merlin seemed unusually intelligent from what he'd seen so far. And Lancelot, while capable of making some idiotic choices when his cockbrained idea of honor got in the way, was far from actually being a fool.

Why would two seemingly smart, capable men sacrifice so much, when they obviously received next to nothing in return?

Whatever the reason, he sure as hell wasn't going to be falling into the same trap. True, he liked Camelot very much and had no plans of leaving anytime soon. But that didn't mean he had to swear his undying loyalty to the people who happened to rule it either.

No… Gwaine was and always would be his own man.

Meanwhile, Merlin rose to his feet, hastily clearing away the dishes with a harassed look on his face. "I'm going to be late," he muttered anxiously under his breath.

"Late for what? It must be close to nine o'clock."

"I have to check on Sir Ethan and Sir Oswald, then report to Arthur's chambers to help him get ready for bed."

Ignoring a dozen scathing comments that crossed his mind, Gwaine took the pile of dishes from Merlin's hands. "Go on then," he said in the kindest voice he could manage. "I'll take care of this."

The look of surprise in response to that small courtesy spoke volumes. He shook his head with a heavy sigh as his new friend hurried out of the room, scowling at the door as it closed behind him.

Curse the bloody nobility.

Chapter Text

Chapter 63: Strange Estrangements

"He wants us to what?" Gwaine stared at Merlin in disbelief, disconcerted by the expression of resignation on the other man's face.

Buying food and drink for the entire tavern had seemed like a brilliant joke the night before, imagining the expression on Arthur's face when he received the bill. But there'd been no harm in it from his perspective – hell, the prince probably sneezed bigger sums of gold than had been spent during one night of revelry. What was his problem?

Merlin shrugged as they walked through the palace corridorss. "He expects to be paid back, that's all. Don't worry about it."

Gwaine had to resist the urge to punch the nearest wall. He was the one who'd spent the money, wasn't he? Why should it fall on Merlin's obviously overworked shoulders to suffer the consequences?

But when he voiced this thought aloud, the other man merely said, "It was my responsibility to look after you. I should have... well, I'm not sure what I should've done, but he's right."

"Like hell he is!" Gwaine exploded. "I'm a grown man, Merlin. I don't need a nursemaid, and I'm damn sure not going to accept some arrogant blowhard of a prince punishing anyone else for what I choose to do! If you ask me, you should tell Arthur where he can stuff all those unpolished boots of his, and…"

"I can't do that. I'd be sacked."

"I'm failing to see how that would be a bad thing."

"You wouldn't understand," Merlin replied with another shrug. "Anyway, here's the armory. I need to get to work. See you later tonight?"

Gwaine snorted aloud, shaking his head in exasperation as he followed his friend into the cavernous hall. As much as it offended his principles to follow the orders of any noble, one in particular at this moment, he'd be damned if he was going to let Merlin pick up the slack for him.

"Arthur is a thoroughbred little braggart," he grumbled a few minutes later, frowning in distaste as he scrubbed at a spot of dog dung on the side of the first boot he'd grabbed.


"For making us do this," he replied, as if it weren't blatantly obvious. And yet it didn't seem to bother Merlin at all, something Gwaine found both increasingly mystifying and downright infuriating.

"I think it's fair."

What was it about this Arthur that made the men around him devalue themselves so much? First Lancelot, and now Merlin? Why did they continually sacrifice their own needs and desires for his benefit? Gwaine obviously hadn't witnessed any interactions between Lancelot and Arthur, but if the prince had treated his other friend even half as poorly as he treated Merlin... damn it all to hell, what would make anyone so blindly loyal to a man like that?

But surprisingly enough, it was only a couple days later that Gwaine began to see Arthur's better qualities for himself.

His own punishment had been almost mindlessly predictable. Of course, it didn't matter that he'd come to the defense of a genuinely innocent man who was being threatened. Merlin was merely a servant, after all, so Gwaine wasn't surprised in the least that King Uther hadn't troubled himself to look for the truth. All that pompous jackass of a king seemed to care about was that a filthy commoner had attacked two of his precious nobles. It had angered Gwaine of course, as injustice always did, but he couldn't say he hadn't been expecting it either.

No, the shocking part had been when Prince Arthur, the man he'd dismissed as just another arrogant bully, had made a heartfelt plea in his defense, showing a sense of honor and fairness he would've never expected to find in a royal.

It wasn't enough to counteract a lifetime of skepticism, of course, but it did lead to Gwaine questioning his beliefs more than he'd ever done in the past. Granted, he still wasn't particularly fond of the man, but at the very least, he was forced to admit that Arthur might someday make a better king than most.

Was that why he'd chosen to return after Uther had ordered his banishment? Was he simply repaying a debt? Was it for Merlin's sake, or Gwen's? Or was there some small glimmer of faith Arthur's actions had awoken in his heart, the possibility that all nobles might not be as bad as he'd always believed?

Whatever the reason, Gwaine had willingly risked his life to come to the prince's aid, joining him in combat against two knights who'd meant to bring about his death with enchanted swords.

The pair had been unmasked as commoners in the end, a minor detail which had probably saved his life. No doubt King Uther would've ordered his execution otherwise, regardless of what the "nobles" had done.

Again, that would've been no less than expected... but the utter lack of gratitude he'd received in response to his timely intervention had been soothed by the genuine regret in Arthur's eyes. Royalty or not, the other man had actually apologized when he'd told him that his father had refused to lift the banishment order.

It made no difference to Gwaine – his bag had already been packed before the final verdict had been given. He'd had every intention of leaving on his own terms, regardless of Uther's input on the subject.

In just a few days, he'd grown surprisingly attached to Camelot, to the point where he wouldn't have minded making his home in the city for good. But it wasn't the time for that just yet; he couldn't have stuck around with an unfeeling tyrant like Uther calling the shots, no matter how much he might have wanted to for other reasons.

Perhaps circumstances would be different someday; in the meantime, there were plenty of other places to go, as well as people he suddenly found himself longing to see.

"Gwaine!" Gwen called, treating him to a lovely smile as she approached from the opposite direction.

"Ah, we meet again for another farewell."

"I am sorry," she said quietly, reaching out to give his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "It isn't fair, especially after what you did for Arthur. Uther is..."

"An arrogant pig?" he helpfully suggested. "A stubborn, unfeeling bastard who needs to pull the stick out of his..."

She hastily interrupted with a loud cough, doing her best to smother a laugh. "I was going to say he's a little unreasonable at times. I know Arthur spoke for you though, and I'm sure he'd have done more if he could have. He isn't like his father; he'll be a..."

"Great king," Gwaine finished for her.

She had that look on her face again... that faraway expression she'd worn when they'd spoken of Arthur only a few hours before. But it made him curious; there was affection in her eyes, yet no hint of the passion one would expect to see in a woman who was speaking about the man she loved. There was a strange sort of detachment, as if what she felt was wrapped up in an ideal of what she thought Arthur would become someday, not so much in the man himself.

Whatever it was, there was clearly something missing in that particular relationship.

"Where will you go?" she questioned, interrupting his musings.

Curiosity had always been one of his biggest weaknesses, so he couldn't help but wonder what he might read in her features if he mentioned another name... that of a man who was still hopelessly in love with her. Did she still have feelings for him, too?

"Thought I'd go visit an old friend of mine," he responded with careful nonchalance, studying her closely. "Lancelot."

There it was, that spark that had been so noticeably absent when she'd spoken of Arthur. It flared in her eyes with an intensity that surprised him, as a rapid succession of raw emotion flitted across her face – confusion, resentment, shocked disbelief, heartfelt sorrow. Stronger than all of those, however, was love. Real, passionate, unmistakable love.

And then it was gone, replaced by a mild expression that was obviously meant to convince him she was merely politely interested... as if she hadn't just admitted a world of truth without speaking a word.

She cleared her throat self-consciously, then stood on her tip toes and pressed a kiss to his stubbled cheek. "Well, I wish you luck, Gwaine. I hope we'll meet again someday."

"Looking forward to it," he said with a sincerity that contradicted his casual grin.

Without further ado, he set his feet on the path that led away from Camelot, struck by the curious feeling that his life would never be quite the same.

"Where have you been?" Morgana demanded testily, glaring at Gwen as she entered the chamber with her arms full of clean linens. "You said you'd be gone for an hour. It's been close to three!"

It had been this way ever since she'd been rescued a few months before – withdrawn, unusually moody, and increasingly standoffish with the people around her. Morgana had always been a bit tempestuous, of course, but she'd usually had justifiable cause for flying into a rage in the past. She'd never been one to lose her temper over minor issues or to take her frustrations out on anyone who wasn't directly responsible for them.

These days, however, she'd taken to brooding in silence, often for days on end. She'd bluntly refuse offers for a friendly ear or any other comfort Gwen might've provided, making it abundantly clear that she wanted to be left alone.

It wasn't like her at all... at least, not the way Gwen had always known her to be.

She tried to make excuses for the erratic behavior. After all, what the other woman had gone through during her year of captivity must have been a terrible ordeal; one could only imagine how difficult it must be to recover from an experience like that. Gwen kept telling herself that she just needed time to heal... but those reassurances seemed hollow as the months passed and nothing changed.

She'd given up on trying to heal the rift between them for the time being; any gestures she'd made in the hopes of regaining their former closeness had been coldly rebuffed.

"I'm sorry, Morgana," she said sincerely, hurrying over to help her into her dress. "It couldn't be helped."

"I'm sure you're right. Forgive me, I'm just tired, that's all."

"Of course," Gwen responded, giving her a gentle pat on the shoulder as she adjusted the folds of her silver gown. "Shall I escort you to supper?"

"What?" Morgana said distractedly. "Oh, no. You're dismissed. I'll see you in the morning, Gwen."

Gwen struggled to ignore an overwhelming feeling of loneliness as she opened her front door and entered the dark, silent house. It was a familiar sensation by now, leaving her feeling hopelessly estranged from everyone she'd ever relied upon for comfort. Morgana grew more distant by the day, and while Merlin always cheered her up, it was rare that they even had the chance to talk anymore with both Arthur and Gaius making constant demands on his time.

Arthur provided the only stability in her life these days, something she'd begun to rely on in the absence of anyone else to turn to. Their meetings were highly secretive and often rushed, but at least he was always Arthur, just as she expected him to be. No strange impulses, no sudden mood swings or unpleasant surprises... sweet, simple, safe.

If he was sometimes a little too simple, well, that could be forgiven. Arthur wasn't the type for deep, meaningful conversations, certainly not prone to openly expressing his feelings or comfortable dealing with frank emotional honesty from anyone else.

But the disappointment she'd initially felt upon this realization was swiftly pushed away, much like a mother would excuse the shortcomings of her child. It was easier to focus on his needs when it came to the finer details of their relationship… all she required in return was a feeling of stability, the simple promise that he would be there.

For that single assurance, she could put aside any minor quibbles, replacing them with gratitude for everything he'd done to chase away the loneliness that would've been unbearable without his presence in her life. Whatever his flaws might be, Arthur had earned her devotion.

With that thought in mind, she resisted the urge to dwell on her encounter with Gwaine, refusing to think too much about the name he'd spoken aloud... or the way that single word had made her feel more alive than she'd felt in as long as she could remember.

Confused, angry, betrayed, yes. But alive.

Chapter Text

Chapter 64: Unpleasant Truths

"Percival, can you get the door?" Eorl called in a distracted voice from the floor above. "Lancelot?"

It was Lancelot who responded to the request, setting down a rusty old sword he'd been restoring as he rose to his feet. The knock sounded again as he crossed the room, a soft, curiously hesitant echo in the cavernous front hall.

"Gwaine?!" he exclaimed in surprise, opening the door to find his friend fidgeting on the other side. "What are you doing here?"

"Just thought I'd stop by for a visit," the other man replied with a casual grin, despite the noticeable anxiety in his eyes. "Do you mind if... may I come in?"

"Of course!" he said hastily, pushing the door open a little wider so Gwaine could slip past him. "Sorry, I just wasn't expecting to see you. Is everything all right?"

Gwaine ignored the question as he cast a surreptitious glance around the empty hall. "Where is she?"

Lancelot frowned in confusion. "Who?"

"My sister."

Supper that evening was a strained affair. Elsa, Percival's stepmother, stared balefully at her brother throughout the meal, while Gwaine focused on tracing his fingers around a knot in the wooden table, determined to avoid her furious gaze.

Lancelot watched him in bewilderment, unable to figure out why his friend had failed to mention Elsa in any of the letters they'd exchanged since he'd come to be employed in her household. More importantly, why did there seem to be so much animosity between them? He glanced hopefully at Percival to see if there might be some answers to be found there, but the other man seemed just as confused as he was by the silent tension.

Only Eorl seemed unperturbed, turning to Lancelot with a fond smile as he spoke. "You've been doing an extraordinary job restoring those rusted weapons you and Percival found inside the old barracks. It's just a pity we don't have enough men to wield them."

"A pity indeed," Elsa spat icily, taking them all by surprise as she rose to her feet so abruptly that her chair toppled over behind her. "No use blaming King Cenred for it either. Not when perfectly capable men like..."

"Calm yourself, my dear," Eorl said quietly, placing a soothing hand on his wife's arm. "Your brother is a man grown. He has every right to choose his own path in life, wherever it might lead him. You can't begrudge him that."

The words seemed to have no effect; Elsa was staring daggers at Gwaine's bowed head, so angry she was visibly shaking where she stood. "And what of his obligation to his family, Eorl? Hasn't lifted a finger to help us over the past decade, has he? Just wanders from place to place like some vagabond, drinking and whoring and who knows what else? He's the most selfish..."

"He's never asked us for anything either. Rich brother-in-law with a self-made fortune? He could've taken advantage of that a hundred times over by now, yet he's never requested so much as a single copper from me. You may not approve of his lifestyle, but..."

"Why am I not surprised that you'd take his side?" Elsa said to her husband in a bitter voice. "You look for the good in everyone, even where it doesn't exist. Gwaine is a lazy, irresponsible, no good drunkard. Nothing more. And I refuse to stay here and listen to you defend him. I'm going up to sit with the children!"


She ignored his weak protest, finally addressing Gwaine directly. "Unless you intend on staying here and doing your duty to your family, I want you gone by morning. I won't have you taking advantage of of our hospitality for a moment longer than is absolutely necessary."

Gwaine raised his eyes for the first time, meeting her stare for stare as he gave her a humorless smirk. "Wouldn't dream of it, dear sister."

Without another word, Elsa departed, slamming the door behind her with a deafening bang.

It was more than an hour before Eorl finally gave up on the atmosphere of forced cheerfulness he'd bravely attempted after his wife had stormed out of the room. He'd made a good effort – bringing out several jugs of his best wine and inquiring kindly about Gwaine's travels and future plans. In the end, however, he abandoned the facade, retiring with a hasty excuse about needing to be up at dawn.

Percival followed as he mumbled about how exhausted he was, and then only Lancelot and Gwaine remained, staring at each other in silence as they wondered what to do next.

"Maybe I should just be on my way," Gwaine finally said with a heavy sigh.

"Don't be ridiculous. It must be nearly 10 o'clock, and there's no moon tonight. There's no sense in risking your safety..."

"You saw what she's like. She'd burn one of her precious beds rather than have me sleep in it."

"Then stay in my room," Lancelot suggested. "This is my home, too. My room and board are taken out of my wages, after all, so it will be my hospitality you'll be receiving. Would that make you feel more at ease?"

Gwaine hesitated for a long moment, then relented with a casual shrug. "All right. But I'm sleeping on the floor."

Nonetheless, Lancelot made a valiant effort to convince him to take the bed during their walk up the stairs. It was a useless endeavor; as soon as they entered the chamber, Gwaine flopped down on the rug, stretching out with an exaggerated groan of feigned contentment.

Lancelot quietly undressed and crawled beneath the blankets, even though sleep was not likely to come upon him anytime soon. There was far too much confusion to sort out in his mind, starting with the fact that he'd been staying with his friend's sister all this time and hadn't even known it. That alone would have been enough to keep him occupied, but the awful scene that had unfolded during supper was downright discomforting.

Having lived in close quarters with Elsa for several months, Lancelot had to admit she wasn't the most pleasant woman to be around. She usually walked around with a sour expression on her face, rarely troubling herself with a nice word for anyone... or any conversation at all, for that matter.

But despite her surly disposition, he'd never witnessed her being unkind to anyone who lived in the fortress. She worked tirelessly to provide for the needs of the household, frequently preparing the meals, doing the wash, or changing bed linens herself rather than leaving it to the servants. And when she was with her children, she was downright cheerful compared with the way she was the rest of the time, always devoting the best of herself to her offspring.

No, Elsa wasn't full of smiles and pleasantries, but she was a decent woman who genuinely cared for her family. For that reason, Lancelot found it significantly easier to overlook her other flaws.

"You asleep?"

"No," he replied quietly. "Just thinking."

A candle flared to life in the darkness. "You want to know why my sister hates me. Why don't you just ask me about it?"

"I wouldn't presume to question you on such a private matter."

"That's your problem, Lancelot," Gwaine responded, sounding uncharacteristically irritable as he spoke. "All manners and consideration, nothing in the way of truth. Don't you get tired of it?"

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"Ignoring everything you'd like to say or do in favor of some cockbrained idea of right and wrong that doesn't even make sense half the damn time?"

Lancelot propped himself up on one elbow and stared down at Gwaine, only to find the other man's eyes blazing with some emotion he couldn't quite define. Anger? Frustration? Pain?

"All right," he said patiently, reminding himself that his friend hadn't exactly had the most pleasant evening. "If you want to talk about it, I'd be glad to listen."

Gwaine let out a laugh that sounded almost bitter. "Of course I want to talk about it. Can't keep my mouth shut about anything, didn't you know? According to my sister, that's just the first of my many shortcomings."

"I understand you don't get along well. But maybe that's because... well, she obviously wishes you'd stay here and work for Eorl. Perhaps she misses you and that's the reason behind her hostility? It can't be easy to be separated from her family."

"That coldhearted bitch doesn't give a damn about me. Never has. She just wants me under her husband's control... hers, really, so she can make me do exactly what she wants. "

"You shouldn't speak of your sister that way," Lancelot said quietly.

"Forgive me," Gwaine said in a sarcastic voice. "I made the mistake of being honest again, didn't I? Fine, let's do it your way. My sister is a saintly woman with a heart full of kindness, and I'm a selfish, no good scoundrel for not devoting myself to her every whim. Does that sound better?"

Lancelot sighed. "I didn't mean..."

"Well, then just tell me what you want me to say."

"I do want to hear the truth, I just don't think it's necessary to..."

"Just not the unpleasant part," Gwaine interrupted with a hollow chuckle. "Well, I'd expect no less from you."

"Unless you want to explain what you mean by that, perhaps you can find a way to speak of your sister without insulting me?" Lancelot replied a little testily. He was growing weary of Gwaine's little jabs, particularly as he couldn't think of a single thing he'd done to provoke the other man.

Gwaine mumbled something unintelligible under his breath, then let out a heavy sigh. "What is there to tell? She wants me to be her puppet while I'd prefer to live my own life. For that reason, I'll never be anything but a disgrace to her."

"We don't have the men to protect this fortress properly, Gwaine. Whatever you think about your sister's intentions, she has legitimate reason for asking you to stay here and help. Maybe you could even repair your relationship with her in doing so. Why is this something you refuse to consider?"

"I've given her enough already. I spent my youth being the man of the house, doing everything in my power to make sure I could protect my family should the need arise. I did every damn thing she ever asked of me, with one exception. I refused to become a knight, you see, which makes me responsible for ruining her life. My father's reputation wasn't enough to gain her a titled marriage so many years after his death, particularly since we were penniless. And…"

"But she made a fine marriage," Lancelot pointed out. "Eorl is a kind, generous man, and quite a successful one on top of that. Surely she can't still blame you for..."

Gwaine shook his head with a wry smile. "That man could have all the gold in the world and a ten inch cock to boot, and it still wouldn't matter to her. He'll always be a commoner, and that makes the union a failure in her eyes. She would've never married him to begin with if she hadn't been forced into it."

"I don't understand. I can't see Eorl as the kind of man who would..."

"Don't worry, Lancelot. When it comes to this, at least, there's nothing I can say to destroy your illusions. My sister was already with child when she married, but not by the man you know. She'd been sharing a bed with one of those titled fellows you're both so fond of in the hopes of becoming a lady. Of course, instead of marrying Elsa when he found out the happy news, the overprivileged little bastard finally confessed he already had a wife."

"I can only imagine how terrible that must have been for your poor sister."

"Not poor for long, as it turned out. Eorl happened along at a most opportune time, a man alone with a growing son to care for. Rather than being concerned over love or purity, he only needed a woman with some common sense to help run his household. And despite my sister's charming disposition, she excels at practical things. Worked out surprisingly well in the end, if you ask me. Why she can't leave me alone to live my own life now that she has a solid man to provide for her is another matter, of course."

They lapsed into silence for a few minutes while Lancelot pondered over everything he'd been told. It was still difficult to understand how Gwaine could abandon his only family, no matter what had occurred between them in the past. Ignoring them in favor of cavorting in distant taverns? It was no wonder his sister was so angry with him.

More than that, Lancelot genuinely cared about Percival, Eorl, and even Elsa in his own way. He hadn't had many opportunities to be around people who treated him as if he truly belonged, like he was part of their own family. Didn't Gwaine understand how precious that was? How could he take them for granted?

"I lost my family when I was very young," he said quietly, reminding himself that Gwaine had encouraged him to be honest. "But I'd like to think that if I'd been fortunate enough to have a sister, I would've never abandoned her, especially when…"

And then Lancelot was on his feet without even realizing how he'd gotten there, staring directly into a pair of furious brown eyes. For a moment, he was sure Gwaine was going to take a swing at him; instead, he took a step backward, somehow managing one of his carefree smiles.

"Well, I've never been fortunate enough to have a woman who truly loved me, but I like to think I wouldn't have responded by taking off like a thief in the middle of the night. Hell, even the whores I've bedded received a few pieces of silver and a word of thanks before I went on my way."

Lancelot flinched, his hand moving to his hip in an instinctive gesture before he realized his sword was across the room. "It's not the same thing," he said furiously. "I've told you…"

"Yes, I suppose you're right. After all, I've never deceived my sister about my intentions, nor have I ever taken it upon myself to make decisions for her without her consent."

"You don't understand," Lancelot gritted out, ignoring how hollow the words sounded as he uttered them aloud. "I did what I did so she'd have a chance at a better life. I…"

"And yet she remains a servant. What do you say to that?"

"What are you talking about? It's been two years since I last saw her! By now, there's no telling..."

"I saw her less than two weeks ago, as it happens," Gwaine said, shaking his head with a soft chuckle. "That's what I came here to tell you before I was subjected to my sister's unfortunate temper and your misplaced scrutiny of my honor. I've just returned from Camelot."

Chapter Text

Chapter 65: The Fallout

Lancelot stared at him in disbelief, opening and closing his mouth several times before managing to gather his thoughts. "I know you're angry, but lying about something like that just to prove a point is inexcusable. You don't know..."

For the second time that night, Gwaine came dangerously close to hitting the best friend he'd ever had. That bond was both the reason for his fury and what ultimately prompted his restraint. Nonetheless, Lancelot's words hit him like daggers to the heart – when had he ever given the man a reason not to trust him?

More than a year of companionship, only to be faced with someone who didn't know him at all.

With that thought, he was struck by the realization that the same was true for just about everyone he'd ever given a damn about. None had seemed to value him for who he was... only what they wanted him to be. And while he'd never been the type to dwell on things like loneliness, the feeling was suddenly overwhelming.

The little redhead back in Oakview had quickly tired of him; after numerous questions about his future plans had failed to satisfy her, he'd come into the tavern to find her cozying up to some obnoxiously prosperous looking fellow, fingering the jeweled torque around his neck with a hungry gleam in her eye.

There'd been no point in making a scene. After all, it wasn't as if they'd agreed to do anything more than share a bed for the winter. But he'd enjoyed her company during the time they'd spent together, and given the chance, he might have even... well, he didn't know what he would've done. But being denied the opportunity to find out had left him curiously disappointed.

And Elsa... for all his hard won independence, there was something about his sister's icy, uncompromising stare that still made him feel like a child, that sad little boy who'd only wanted be loved as a brother, not treated like a weapon that could be used to cut through the obstacles that lay between Elsa and her ambitions.

No, Lancelot didn't understand. How could he? His sense of honor, duty, and loyalty was painted in black and white, with little comprehension of what those words actually meant. To him, those concepts merely defined the services he should provide, or sacrifices to be made on behalf of another. He couldn't see that any honorable commitment, be it to king, family, friend, or lover, was something that had to go both ways if it was to have any meaning at all.

Above all things, it was a bond of trust.

"Lies, eh?" he said quietly, giving Lancelot a humorless smirk. "My friend... you're a bloody coward."

Without another word, he turned on his heel and strode out of the chamber.

Stunned and furious, Lancelot didn't attempt to follow Gwaine, realizing that any further interaction would only lead to a physical altercation. Instead, he paced the length of the chamber, eventually falling on his bed with a frustrated grunt as the storm of angry words continued to batter away at his consciousness.

Well, one word, really... the worst definition a man could possibly ascribe to another.


It followed him into a fitful slumber, invading his dreams with its merciless refrain. Coward, coward, coward...

When Lancelot awoke just a couple hours later, shielding his bleary eyes from the bright morning sunlight, Gwaine was nowhere to be found. It wasn't until he rose and started to dress that he noticed a thick square of parchment lying on the bedside table.

Apprehensive yet curious, he sank back on the bed, immediately recognizing the bold, slightly messy script as he unfolded the letter.


I considered following your example and not saying anything at all before leaving, but I'm afraid that's never been my style.

He winced, then forced himself to continue reading.

Putting my farewells in a letter isn't what I'd prefer either, but this seems like a better solution than resorting to my fists to get my message across. Don't get me wrong – I would've been glad to stick around and pummel you bloody if I'd thought that might've knocked some sense into that thick skull of yours, but let's be realistic, eh?

Hmmm, where to begin? Well, if I know you as well as I think I do, you spent most of the night fuming over the fact that I called you a coward...

Lancelot shifted uncomfortably.

... rather than giving much thought to anything else I said. Am I correct?

Let me be clear before we go any farther – I've never met a more courageous man when it comes to risking his life in combat, or standing up for what he believes to be right. You're as honorable as they come on that count, my friend, and I admire you for it.

Smiling to himself, he breathed a sigh of relief as he flipped to the second page. Gwaine had just been angry, not…

But you're still a bloody coward.

He swore aloud as he balled the letter up in one fist, tossing it aside as he stalked out of the room.

Nobody mentioned Gwaine's abrupt departure as they sat down to share breakfast, almost as if their uninvited guest had never been there at all. Elsa maintained her typical sour silence, staying only long enough to nibble on a piece of toast before hurrying upstairs to check on her girls. Percival was quiet as usual, focused on devouring the mountain of ham, eggs, and sausages in front of him.

Meanwhile, Eorl chattered away cheerfully, rattling off a list of chores for the younger men to attend to that day.

"Lancelot, can you continue your restoration efforts on that old weaponry? I was thinking we might be able to sell it for a tidy profit, considering the quality of your work."

He smiled, appreciating the praise. "Of course."

"And Percival, why don't you see about replacing that rickety wagon wheel we were discussing the other day?"

That was responded to with a grunt of assent.

"Very good," Eorl said in a satisfied voice, pausing to take a long drink of cider. "Other than that, I think we should..."

His words were interrupted by loud, frantic pounding on the fortress door.

"Here, have a drink," Eorl said kindly, placing a tankard in front of the man who was still wild eyed and panting as he sank heavily into the nearest chair. He'd burst into the main hall without ceremony, practically incoherent as he'd attempted to deliver his urgent message. Something having to do with Cenred was all any of them had been able to make out as he'd struggled for composure.

He drank his ale with a series of loud slurps, then set the empty tankard on the table before looking up at Eorl with wide, fearful eyes.

"Your brother's settlement has been attacked. Cenred's army. No one was spared, not even the children. There are few survivors."

For a moment, the hall was deathly silent.

"Why?" Eorl finally whispered.


"Taxes?! But my uncle has always... he wouldn't neglect to..."

The stranger gave Percival a sad look. "I know. I've been working for Algar for more than five years, and I've never known a more upstanding man. It was no fault of his, I assure you. Cenred..."

He trailed off, shaking his head in disgust before he continued. "Not that he's ever been a great king, mind you, but he was tolerable in the past. Stayed out of people's business as long as they abided by the law. Now that he's gotten himself entangled with that witch though, they say she's the one giving the commands these days. Gathering men and amassing a fortune to help her sister take the throne of Camelot. Cenred is nothing more than a pawn in her schemes."

Other than a sharp intake of breath, Lancelot remained silent. This wasn't the time for his own fear, not with Eorl and Percival both grief stricken and stunned at the loss of their own family members. He'd write to Merlin as soon as possible, comforted in the meantime by the fact that Camelot boasted the most well defended fortress in five kingdoms. For now, there were more immediate concerns.

"So what...?" Eorl started hesitantly.

"King's started sending troops out, demanding the seizure of all valuables from his most prosperous citizens. And if they refuse..."

There was no need to finish the statement. Comprehension dawned in Eorl's eyes, swiftly followed by an expression of helpless fury.

"Percival," he said quietly, clearly struggling to control the trembling in his voice. "Lancelot. I want you to go with this man – forgive me, I didn't catch your name... Lucan? Yes, go with Lucan and see what you can do to assist the survivors. Anyone who doesn't have a place to go is welcome to shelter here with us."

"And you, Father?" Percival questioned, frowning in sudden concern.

Eorl let out a heavy sigh. "I will remain here. I can't leave Elsa and the girls unprotected."

"But what if...?"

"There are innocent victims who need our help. Turning our back on them is not an option. Just be careful, and return as quickly as you can."

Lancelot rode quietly beside Percival with Lucan bringing up the rear, taking the road at the swiftest pace possible without running the risk of tiring their horses before reaching their destination.

Algar... the name was familiar, though he'd never actually met the man. Percival often spoke fondly of his uncle, aunt, and three young cousins, obviously feeling a much closer bond with them than he did with Elsa's sullen brood. Algar was something of a legend in his family's eyes, a man who'd succeeded in taking charge of a decrepit old manor and its surrounding lands, eventually creating the most fruitful large scale farming venture to be found in fifty leagues.

It had been Algar who'd given his younger brother the means to start his wool business, a fact that Eorl often boasted proudly of when he'd had a little too much ale.

"How much longer?" Lancelot questioned above the endless pounding of horse hooves.

"Few more hours," Percival grunted in reply.

As it turned out, it was close to nightfall when a thick column of smoke became visible in the distance. Lucan took the lead then, turning off onto a wide, winding pathway that seemed to go on forever, then ended abruptly just a few dozen paces away from the charred foundations of what had obviously been the main house.

Lucan frowned in consternation as they dismounted, his eyes fixed on the smoking barn and ruined storage sheds that lay just beyond.

"I don't understand. These buildings were unharmed when I left. Cenred's men were already gone by then. I... I don't understand."

"Came back for the rest, they did," answered a bitter voice, as an elderly man came stumping out of the shadows. "All the grain and the animals too. Then they chucked the bodies inside and set fire to it all, the miserable bastards."

"My aunt and uncle?" Percival said in a shaky voice. "The children?"

The old man shook his head. "I'm sorry."

And then he turned to face the nearby forest, cupping his hands around his mouth as he called forth a summons. "You lot can come out! Eorl's son is here. He'll take care of us now."

Unfortunately, Percival didn't appear to be capable of taking care of anyone at that moment. He stood like a statue, white faced and unresponsive, as the bedraggled survivors emerged to crowd around him. His lips started to move in answer to their bewildered pleas, yet no sound emerged.

"What shall we do?"

"Where are we supposed to go?"

"How can we hope to feed ourselves now that the crops have been stolen?"

Lancelot quickly interceded, stepping up beside Percival and speaking in a calm, quiet voice. "Are there any others?"

A plump older woman with a nasty gash on her cheek stepped forward. "We're all that's left, sir."

There were six survivors other than Lucan – the elderly man and woman they'd spoken with already, in addition to two skinny youths and a much younger woman who was clutching a toddler in her arms.

"That's more than twenty dead," Lucan commented to Lancelot under his breath.

"There's nothing we can do about that now," he responded grimly. "We need to find shelter for the night, and then make for home first thing in the morning."

"How?" Percival suddenly blurted out. "No food. No wagon. Old folks and a baby? The journey is more than twenty leagues over hard ground. We'll never be able to..."

"We'll find a way," Lancelot said quietly.

It took three days to lead the small group of survivors back to Eorl's fortress. Even though the horses were given to the elderly, the overwrought refugees required frequent opportunities to stop and rest. Food wasn't exactly plentiful, but thanks to the small game Percival managed to kill along with a few roots and berries, no one went hungry.

But when they finally made it home, Lancelot's relieved sigh was replaced by a gasp of shock, immediately followed by the sickening realization that they'd come too late. The body was lying facedown among the splinters of what had once been a heavy oaken door, brought down by the arrows that still protruded from his broad back. That was far from being the only sign of recent devastation, of course, but it was all that mattered in that moment.

The master of the house was dead.

He swallowed hard, blinking away the moisture in his eyes as Percival cried out in anguished disbelief.

Chapter Text

Chapter 66: Harsh Epiphanies

Pausing to wipe the sheen of sweat from his brow, Lancelot wrapped his blistered hands around the shovel handle one last time and patted down the mound of freshly turned earth at his feet. He lingered for a moment, picturing Eorl's face with a sharp pang of grief, then turned with a weary sigh and walked back to the fortress.

"Is it done?" Elsa questioned abruptly, standing there waiting as he moved aside the planks that had been set up as a temporary door and entered the main hall. That was yet another task he needed to see about as soon as possible, but not until he'd had something to eat and a little rest.


She gave him a stiff nod. "Food's on the table."

Lancelot thanked her, then hesitated for a moment. "Has he come out yet?"

An expression of irritation darkened her features. "No, he has not. Must be nice to have the luxury of sitting around doing nothing while the rest of us are working our fingers to the bone."

"He's just lost both his father and his uncle," Lancelot said softly. "I don't think he knows how to cope with such a devastating blow."

Elsa glared at him. "And I've just lost my husband! You don't see me shutting myself away when there are survivors to care for, food to prepare, and a home in shambles around me, do you?"

He shook his head, then mumbled something that might've been an apology before walking away to retrieve his supper.

It had been two days since they'd returned to the fortress, along with the small group of refugees who'd managed to survive the attack on Percival's uncle's lands. Of course, the loss of Eorl had been a terrible shock, but other than that, the invasion of King Cenred's men had proven far less severe than it could have been.

Unlike his brother Algar's sprawling manor house, which had been constructed entirely of wood, Eorl's home was a solid stone fortress and much better suited to withstanding a violent assault. While the soldiers had helped themselves to the main food stores, there were quite a few hidden cellars that had escaped their notice. Eorl had been wise enough to conceal plenty of provisions in case of invasion, as well as a large chunk of his considerable fortune.

It was in one of these hiding places that Elsa, her daughters, and the small staff of servants had found refuge, ensuring that no one other than the master himself had come to any harm.

Why had Eorl chosen to place himself in danger rather than taking shelter with the rest of his household? It seemed the height of foolishness at first glance, yet Lancelot was fairly certain he knew the answer.

If Cenred's men had discovered what was known as an inhabited fortress to be empty upon their arrival, they would've searched relentlessly until someone had been found. And if they'd proven unsuccessful in their efforts, they would've returned at some later time, determined to catch the owner by surprise. He would've been slaughtered anyway in repayment of the insult of evading them, and how many other innocent lives might have been lost in the process?

No, Eorl had sacrificed himself to protect the others, hopefully dying with the comforting knowledge that Cenred's men were unlikely to return anytime soon. The fortress had been stripped of its assets as far as they knew, and the master himself was dead. Why bother coming back just to terrorize a handful of women and servants if there was nothing else to gain?

It was difficult not to feel humbled in the face of so much selflessness, to push away the overwhelming need to sit down and weep over the loss of such a courageous man. Lancelot probably would have, in truth, if there hadn't been so many practical matters to worry about.

His own grief would simply have to wait.

"Percival?" he called softly, pushing open the chamber door.

The other man was sitting in a chair by the window, staring out into the nothingness of a moonless night. He grunted briefly, but didn't turn around or acknowledge his presence in any other way. Realizing his friend hadn't shown any improvement, Lancelot moved closer, looking down at him with a great deal of concern.

"Have you eaten anything?"

Percival didn't respond.

"Have you slept at all?"


Hesitantly, Lancelot laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I know how you must be feeling, but your father wouldn't have wanted you to..."

"It's my duty to avenge him," Percival interrupted tonelessly. "I'm his only son."

"I would be only too happy to aid you if that were possible, but you know as well as I do that it's not. We're speaking of an army here... hundreds, possibly thousands of well-armed, fully trained soldiers. There'd be no chance of succeeding against..."

Percival let out a hollow chuckle. "I'm not talking about succeeding, Lancelot. Do you think my father believed he had any chance against the men who killed him? But he faced them anyway, didn't he? Because it was his duty. Because it was the right thing to do."

"That's different," Lancelot countered. "He was protecting his home, his family. If you were to go out and face Cenred's army on your own, what purpose would that serve other than a needless death? If you truly wish to honor your father, there are better ways."

"What ways?"

"By surviving. By valuing your life as much as he did, and making sure his sacrifice wasn't in vain."

Percival hesitated, then gave a curt nod. "I think I'll try to get some sleep now."

Lancelot's thoughts were heavy as he closed the door to his own chamber, stripping off his mail and sweat stained clothing. As weary as he was, he expected to fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow; instead, he stared blankly at the ceiling as his mind offered up one dismal musing after another, still struggling to come to terms with all the tragedy he'd witnessed.

Had it been less than a week ago that he'd stood with Gwaine in this very chamber, bickering over his relationship with his sister or other such nonsense? It all seemed so trivial now – why had he continued to goad the man, questioning his honor rather than giving him the benefit of the doubt and letting it go?

Suddenly, he realized how much he missed his friend, despite the angry words that had passed between them. With no company beyond Elsa's bitter jabs, Percival's determined withdrawal, and the silent, white faced survivors that wandered about the fortress like ghosts, hearing Gwaine's bracing laughter would do him a world of good right about now. And Gwaine would laugh, even in the face of tragedy – not in a disrespectful way, but comforting somehow. He'd smile and offer encouragement, whatever it took to prevent Lancelot from surrendering to even a moment of despair.

Gwaine always seemed to know exactly what another person needed, even (and perhaps especially) when they hadn't figured it out for themselves yet. Whether that was a strong drink, friendly advice or a hard kick in the backside, Gwaine would deliver without fail.

Upon the heels of this thought, Lancelot finally recognized the truth he'd been missing while he'd been fixated on his own definition of honor. With a great deal of shame, he was forced to admit that when someone needed Gwaine, truly needed him, the man was there without question. Perhaps it wasn't in the way they might have expected, but he was there.

Most of all, Gwaine had never had anything but the best of intentions.

Rising stiffly, he retrieved the letter he'd discarded a few days before. After lighting a candle, he crawled beneath the blankets again, then smoothed out the crumpled parchment and began to read.

But you're still a bloody coward.

The words didn't sting any less the second time around, but he forced himself to continue nonetheless.

Despite what you might think, I don't say this to insult you. I'm trying – as I've always tried – to get you to recognize truths you refuse to acknowledge about yourself. Why? Hell if I know. Probably comes down to me giving a damn, even when I wish I didn't.

You question my honor, while I'm left to wonder if you even understand what it is to be honorable, or loyal, or any of those other ideals you seem to value so highly.

Trust, Lancelot. Without trust, the rest of it is meaningless. Your sense of honor might prompt a well-meaning selflessness on your part (to idiotic degrees, truth be told), but you never allow anyone else to have any input on the matter. You decide what's right and that's that – there's no room for you to consider another point of view.

That is why I call you a coward. You cling to these ridiculous ideals of right and wrong, afraid to look beyond them for fear of... hell if I know. I suppose you'll have to figure that out for yourself.

Every man has his flaws, but in your case, you damage others (and yourself most of all) by trying to make everything exactly the way you think it should be. Take me, for example. You've trusted me with your life more than once, depended on me for survival when you were unable to care for yourself. I believe I've proven myself to be an honorable man, but still, you reject anything about me that discomforts you, quick to assume the worst rather than having faith in me when it comes to things you might not understand.

You trust when it's easy, when it suits you... then snatch that trust away the moment your lofty ideals are the least bit threatened.

Lancelot paused, shaken by the power of Gwaine's words as they penetrated defenses he'd been erecting for a lifetime. The impulse to hold the parchment to the candle flame, to burn the letter to cinders and escape the truths contained within, was overwhelming. He resisted the urge, however, realizing that by doing so, he'd only be proving the truth of his own cowardice.

You see what you want to see, rejecting anything that might lead you to question your own beliefs or the choices you've made. For that peace of mind, you'd look a friend in the eye and call him a liar without justification. Tell me, Lancelot... is that what you call honor? Are you so afraid of being wrong that refusing to listen seems better than facing up to the things you don't want to hear?

Speaking of which, let's discuss my recent visit to Camelot… the one that never happened? No, I never met a man named Merlin who happens to have twinking blue eyes and a strange fondness for neckerchiefs. I didn't sleep in his little room off the physician's chamber, nor could I describe it to you right down to the blanket covering his narrow bed. Cream colored wool with brown stripes? Just a lucky guess.

I didn't attempt to seduce a lovely young maidservant with black curls and soft brown eyes, only to realize my efforts were for nothing when she introduced herself as "Gwen." I wouldn't be able to pinpoint exactly how she smells – sunshine, lavender, and sweetness, nor would I know anything about the tiny mark to the right of her nose that just begs to be kissed.

(Don't worry, I didn't.)

… and I suppose I didn't mention your name in passing, only to come to the conclusion that she still harbors some very strong feelings for you.

The color drained from Lancelot's face as he read those lines several times over; finally moving on, he hastily skimmed over the basic details of Gwaine's visit – fond impressions of Merlin, a few rather less than complimentary remarks about Arthur, along with a downright scathing rant where Uther was concerned. Yes, the man had definitely been in Camelot.

Saying farewell to Gwen was bittersweet, as I enjoyed her intelligence, sense of humor, and most of all, her kindness. If nothing else, let me commend you for your exceptional taste… though it does make all that "for her own good" nonsense even more difficult to understand. I didn't meet some silly, empty headed girl, but a clever and capable woman who seems to know exactly what she wants and what is best for her. I figured this out within five minutes of speaking with her... how can someone who has known her for years fail to see it?

This brings me back to my earlier point... trust. Face the truth, Lancelot. You didn't leave that woman because it was the "right" thing to do. You did it because you couldn't find value in yourself next to a man like Arthur. Like it or not, there's a big difference between the two. For some reason, you think so little of yourself that you feel the only thing you have to offer is what you're willing to sacrifice.

That's really why you wouldn't let her choose for herself, isn't it? Because if she'd decided she wanted to be with you, she'd be wrong. Her reasoning wouldn't have even been a factor in your mind.

That's your greatest flaw, Lancelot – no matter how good your intentions might be, you'll never understand what it means to be truly honorable until you learn that it isn't about deciding what is right for anyone else. It's about being true to the people you care about no matter what the future might bring... valuing not only their immediate safety, but also their feelings, opinions, and their right to make their own choices in life.

Yes, even if the choice is you.

Honor isn't about always doing the right thing. It's about being there for good or ill and allowing both yourself and others the freedom of getting it wrong sometimes. It's recognizing that we're all flawed (you no more than any other) and just doing the best you can to support the people you love. I hope you come to understand that someday.

For my part, I forgive you for any insults directed at me over the course of our disagreement. I hope you can do the same, and that you understand my purpose in writing this letter. I only want you to face the truth… as your friend, it's frustrating as hell to see how much unnecessary suffering you bring upon yourself.

More than anything, I can't help thinking that if you stopped trying so hard to prove your worth, to be a good man, you'd finally come to the realization that you already are one.

Until we meet again,

As the letter fell from his limp fingers, Lancelot buried his face in his hands and wept.

Chapter Text

Chapter 67: The Coming Storm

Exhaustion provided a sweet relief for Lancelot, allowing for a restful sleep despite his inner turmoil. He awoke with the dawn, though he chose to linger in bed as he struggled to come to terms with the chaos swirling around in his mind.

Strangely enough, admitting the truth behind Gwaine's words was easy. Perhaps he was finally strong enough to face his shortcomings, for the sense of relief he felt as a result was even more overwhelming than the pain of realizing just how wrong he'd been on countless occasions.

…if you stopped trying so hard to prove your worth, to be a good man, you'd finally come to the realization that you already are one.

Of all the observations the other man had made about his character, none resonated more than that one. All his life, he'd fought an endless battle to validate his existence. His quest for knighthood, his firmly held belief in honor and sacrifice... even leaving Gwen had largely been another way of showing the world how selfless he was willing to be.

Yes, he'd always clung to a definite idea of right and wrong, but how many of those principles had been based upon what he truly believed, rather than existing as a set of rules for the man he thought he should be? At heart, he'd never felt worthy in his own right, which was why he'd latched onto those codes of knightly conduct so fiercely in the past.

And his lack of trust, not in others but in himself, was why he'd always resisted with equal ferocity when it was suggested that honor and goodness were not so black and white. He'd never trusted in his ability to make that distinction on his own without some irrefutable standard to back him up.

Perhaps it went back to his childhood, the guilt of surviving when his family had been brutally slaughtered. Grief had a way of changing a person forever, particularly a young man who'd spent years thereafter desperate to prove his strength, his bravery, his willingness to devote his life to selfless duty and personal sacrifice. He'd never given much thought to his own happiness in the endless, often futile effort to stop blaming himself for the crime of being alive.

For most of his life, he'd been unable to escape the weight of a self-inflicted debt that no amount of tireless service or honorable conduct could have erased. But was that fair? Life was a gift that was given or taken away without rhyme or reason, proven by the fact that innocent children perished while those who were least deserving often lingered until a ripe old age. Didn't that make it folly to fault oneself for what amounted to a simple twist of fate?

Yes… and understanding that simple truth at long last changed everything.

Pushing the blankets aside, Lancelot sat up and reached for his trousers. There were numerous concerns to be dealt with – letters he needed to write and apologies to be made, seeing to the ongoing repair efforts around the fortress, what else could be done to assist the survivors...

For now, he needed to see Percival.

Upon finding Percival's chamber empty, Lancelot rushed down the stairs to search for his friend.

"He's gone," Elsa said brusquely.

"What? Where did he go?"

"Rode out of here just after dawn, mumbling some nonsense about his 'duty.' Funny how 'duty' seems to translate to 'leave my family in their time of need.'"

It took all the strength he possessed not to snap at the ill-tempered woman, but he managed with the silent reminder that there were more important things to worry about at the moment. Hurrying back up the stairs to gather a few neccessities, he started in surprise at the cold words that came from the doorway as he shoved a change of clothing into his satchel.

"You're deserting us, too. I might have known."

"I'm not deserting anyone," he responded quietly, buckling his scabbard around his waist. "My friend is distraught over his father, to the point where I fear he's beyond rational thought. I intend to stop him from doing something rash."

"Such as drinking himself into a stupor like my worthless brother?"

"No. Like getting himself killed. Please step aside."

Elsa did as he asked, though her features were still clouded with resentment. "I suppose you don't care what happens to us then, perfectly content to leave women and children alone and in peril. So much for honor..."

Lancelot silenced her with a cutting look. "You have plenty of provisions and the means to hide if need be. You have a fortune in gold, more than enough to ensure your safety elsewhere if you don't feel comfortable here. You are far from helpless, nor are you in any immediate danger. I'm afraid the same can't be said for Percival, which doesn't seem to concern you in the least. Do not speak to me of honor."

"But…" she trailed off with a haughty sniff.

"Oh, and another thing," he said as he slung his satchel over one shoulder. "Your brother is far from worthless, even if you're too blind to see it for yourself."

Without another word, he turned and left the fortress.

Lancelot did feel guilty as he rode away, but it ceased to be for Elsa's sake as he began to understand what Gwaine had been trying to tell him about his sister. Her lofty expectations and refusal to take responsibility for herself were something quite different than genuine need. A man might have a certain amount of responsibility to his family, but that didn't give them the right to abuse the privilege, nor to degrade him for not submitting to their every demand.

He certainly had a lot to apologize for the next time he saw his friend.

Percival's tracks were easy enough to follow, thanks to a recent rainstorm that had turned the normally hard packed roads into pathways of soft mud. He'd imagined a grueling journey lasting for days, perhaps even weeks; in the end, he'd only ridden a few hours when he encountered a small village where the tracks stopped abruptly in front of the tavern.

Sighing in relief, he smiled to himself as he walked in the door, immediately spotting Percival as the other man lifted a large tankard to his lips.

In one way, at least, Elsa had been right.

"Figured you'd come," he mumbled, forcing Lancelot to lean closer to make out the words. Unlike other men, who grew louder and more boisterous when they were in their cups, Percival only became more soft spoken. Anyone who knew him could tell he was well and truly drunk when they could hardly hear him at all.

"What happened? Why did you leave?"

Percival took another long drink before responding. "Couldn't stay there any longer. Father's gone… there's nothing left there for me anymore. I went into his office before I left. I was his heir, you know. Signed it all over to Elsa. The land, the gold, all of it."

"That was kind of you. But..."

"I have no love for Elsa, but I wish her no harm. She was his wife, after all. I couldn't turn her out, nor could I bear to saddle myself with her constant presence, which would've been inevitable if I'd claimed my inheritance. You understand?"

Lancelot nodded. "I do."

"So now, I make my own way," Percival continued with a sad smile. "I don't know where I'll go or what I'll do when I get there, but I brought enough gold to sustain me until I figure it out."

"When you're unsure of where to go," Lancelot said, accepting his own tankard from the barmaid as she passed their table, "the best course of action is usually to stay where you are. What is this place called?"

"Don't know about the tavern, but the village is Haldor."

Lancelot nodded. "Haldor. Your new home, at least for now."

"And you?" Percival said softly, sounding surprisingly vulnerable as he spoke.

"I have no intention of leaving your side until you're well and truly settled. Perhaps not even then, depending on where you decide to go."

"Thank you. You're a good friend, Lancelot."

"Not always," he said truthfully, returning the other man's smile with a slighty self-conscious grin of his own. "But I'm working on it."

Lancelot pulled quill and parchment from his satchel, intent on writing to Merlin. Providing the means to contact him at his new location was the easy part – beyond that, he couldn't be sure what was safe to put in a letter. If King Cenred really did intend on invading Camelot, there was no telling how much access his spies might have to missives exchanged between the kingdoms. And of course, letters addressed to the palace would be of particular interest.

In the end, he simply wrote:

Be ever vigilant and encourage our mutual friends to do the same. Peaceful times are something we should never take for granted, especially when they might be slipping through our fingers.

It wasn't much, but would have to suffice for the time being.

He set aside the finished letter, then retrieved a second sheet of parchment, wetting his quill once more. Determined to put things right, he'd already written the first few sentences before remembering that the intended recipient had left no hint of his next destination. He hesitated for a moment, then reached for the first letter again.

If you happen to hear from Gwaine, he added as a footnote. Please mention that I'm anxious to speak with him and let him know where I can be found.

Lancelot nodded in satisfaction as he sealed the message. It was still surprising that people from such different parts of his life had become acquainted, especially since he hadn't been there to witness it himself. But it was nice somehow... like his life was slowly coming together according to some greater design he couldn't hope to understand just yet.

The final letter he intended to write was by far the most difficult to articulate.

Dear Gwen,

I am truly and sincerely sorry for...

No, that didn't work.

I made an unforgivable mistake when I left you the way I did. Please know that...

Know what? That not only had he treated her abominably, but that it had taken him more than two years to admit to it?

I still love you with every fiber of my being.

And what was the point of telling her so in a letter? She'd had more than two years to heal and move on with her life. Even if she wasn't with Arthur, which was a reasonable assumption due to the fact that she was still a servant, that didn't mean she hadn't found happiness with someone else by now.

… only to come to the conclusion that she still harbors some very strong feelings for you.

As much as Gwaine's words filled his heart with hope, it was necessary to be to be realistic. "Strong feelings" could mean anything... that she would be willing to give him another chance, perhaps, but it was just as likely that she was still furious over his abandonment, or even that she hated him.

However she felt, she deserved more than a letter. Too much time had passed, too many things were uncertain... this was a conversation that needed to happen face to face, not something that could be resolved on a bit of parchment.

I need to return to Camelot, he thought to himself as he tucked his writing supplies back in his satchel. And as soon as Percival is back on his feet, that's exactly where I intend to go. I've stayed away for far too long already.

Merlin's response arrived more than a month later, after a great deal of anxious waiting on Lancelot's part. He opened it right at the table where they'd been eating supper, eagerly scanning the familiar messy script.

"Your friend in Camelot?" Percival questioned.

Lancelot nodded briefly, then read aloud:

I know dark clouds are brewing, but there's little I can do until the storm breaks.

Percival frowned in bewilderment. "What does that mean?"

"Merlin is aware that there's a threat to the kingdom, but he's powerless to act at this time."

"Right. What else does he say?"

Conditions are far more dangerous in close proximity to bad weather, of course, but I'm doing all I can to find shelter for those in need.

Percival lifted his eyebrows.

"The traitor is someone close to the king or possibly Prince Arthur," Lancelot explained, "which makes the situation much more precarious. Nonetheless, Merlin is searching for a solution."

"I thought... isn't he just a servant?"

Lancelot hesitated. "Merlin is blessed with... uncommon wisdom and loyalty. Arthur trusts his judgment far beyond any ordinary servant."

This is very much like a storm you encountered years ago, though you'd probably remember it as a gentle summer breeze. Memory is so much sweeter than truth, after all, and time has a way of changing many things we thought we understood.

Setting down the letter, Lancelot let out a heavy sigh. "I didn't want to believe it, though I've had my suspicions for quite some time."

"What is it?" Percival asked him curiously.

"The traitor is the Lady Morgana."

Chapter Text

Chapter 68: The Dawning of War

Gwen couldn't recall a time in her life when she'd felt so... powerless.

Tending to her duties like everything was normal was only growing harder as her relationship with Morgana became increasingly strained. Dealing with the other woman's temperamental outbursts was now a daily occurrence, demanding a level of restraint Gwen had never had to rely on in the past.

But in more recent times, it had become obvious that something darker lay behind this erratic behavior, proving that Morgana wasn't to be trusted... not anymore.

Discovering her secretly using magic on several occasions had definitely been cause for suspicion, but when King Uther had caught Arthur and Gwen sharing a private moment deep in the forest, she'd known it was no mere coincidence... her former friend really did have ill intentions. This had been unmistakably confirmed by the way Morgana had reveled in the idea of her own maidservant being executed for sorcery.

She still felt sick whenever she remembered the cruel smirk she'd witnessed on Morgana's face that terrible day. There had been no trace of the compassionate spirit she'd admired for as long as she could remember, only a cold, calculating expression that had chilled her to her bones.

Why? What had she ever done to make Morgana behave so viciously toward her? Yes, there'd been distance between them before her disappearance, but surely that wasn't sufficient cause for this level of spite, was it?

Maybe she wanted Arthur for herself, and had become irrationally jealous when she'd discovered he had feelings for Gwen? No, that couldn't be it – they'd never behaved like anything more than siblings. She might have enjoyed toying with Arthur when they'd been younger, but she'd never pursued him like she had with other men she'd desired.

Whatever the reason behind the hostility, realizing her friend was truly lost to her was the loneliest feeling Gwen had ever known – more than living without her father or brother, even harder than being abandoned by Lancelot. During all the changes in her life, Morgana had been the one constant presence... kind, understanding, a source of unyielding strength.

The person she'd loved was gone now, leaving a stranger in her place... an unknown being with achingly familiar eyes and a face Gwen knew as well as her own, yet couldn't seem to recognize anymore. That was the cruelest part of all, living with the constant reminder of a voice, a scent, a smile belonging to someone who no longer seemed to exist.

Meanwhile, Elyan had returned to Camelot and taken up his place at their father's forge. Gwen was overjoyed to have her brother back, of course, but it had quickly become obvious Elyan had changed significantly during the time they'd spent apart. She often found herself keeping company with yet another stranger wearing the face of a loved one, though at least Elyan never seemed to have any ill intentions.

On the contrary, he'd spoken of Arthur with glowing admiration ever since the prince had come to his rescue and invited him back to Camelot to live, all while praising his sister for capturing the affections of such a worthy suitor. It was a little unnerving for Gwen at first; the brother she remembered had openly disliked those of higher rank.

He'd never shown any particular interest in swordplay either, so it had been with a great deal of surprise that she'd come home one day to find him engaged in a friendly sparring match in the street. Elyan had seemed to possess a fair amount of knowledge in the art of combat, displaying a level of skill that would've required years of practice to achieve.

When she'd questioned him on the matter, he'd only replied with, "It's a rough world beyond Camelot's walls, Gwen. I never knew how good I had it until I was left to my own devices out there. A man has to know how to defend himself."

"You could've come back home, you know."

Elyan had shaken his head with a smile. "No, I couldn't have... not without proving myself first. I don't intend on being a blacksmith forever, Gwen."

Gwen had lapsed into silence, wondering exactly what it was that made men feel like they had to go out in search of some undefined proof of worthiness in order to feel complete. She might've asked her brother this very question, but it threatened to touch a little too deeply on uncomfortable memories... elements of her past she'd rather keep to herself.

She never told Elyan about Lancelot. Alarming him with talk about how much she'd once loved another man, when he already constantly worried that she'd somehow ruin her chances with Arthur, seemed foolish and unnecessary... especially when Lancelot was unlikely to ever return to Camelot anyway.

Gwen was often unnerved by the way people seemed to take a direct interest in her relationship with Arthur. Lancelot had given up on her based on the mere suspicion she had feelings for the prince. Merlin had shown a strong bias toward the man he served; from time to time, she'd asked whether he'd heard from past love, only for him to shake his head and make a gentle, yet pointed comment about Arthur. It had taken Gwaine's unknowing passing comment for her to even find out Lancelot was still alive.

And Elyan... her brother sometimes made her downright uncomfortable with his level of enthusiasm concerning her relationship. "Think of it, Gwen," he'd said to her eagerly one night, his dark eyes shining with excitement. "You could be queen someday! Can you imagine what might be possible for us if that happened?"

"My feelings for Arthur have nothing to do with his position, Elyan."

"Yes, but you can't tell me you don't dream about the things he could give you. Living in the palace... your own servants... wealth and privilege and...?"

"I'd be just as happy with Arthur if he was a pig farmer."

Saying those words aloud had been unsettling, as she'd heard an echo of herself vowing the same thing about Lancelot years before. There'd been a clear picture in her mind back then... Lancelot dressed in simple clothing, humble and dirty as he'd tended the animals in some poor village. She'd had a vivid image of sharing that life with him, one that had left her with a deep feeling of contentment.

But conjuring up a similar vision of Arthur had been impossible; no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't seem to imagine him as anything aside from prince and future king. Eventually she'd pushed the thought aside, reminding herself that there was no point in dwelling on hypotheticals that would never come to pass anyway.

"Arthur, where are you going?"

"I'm sorry, Guinevere. I can't tell you that."

"When will you return?"

"Soon, I hope."

Arthur stepped closer and pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. "Don't worry," he said, his voice soft and reassuring. "I'll be careful."

Only a few minutes after that hasty and unexpected goodbye, Gwen watched from Morgana's window as Arthur and Merlin rode out of the city gates, alone and unaided. She chewed on her fingernails anxiously; he'd never failed to be open with her about his quests in the past... why this sudden secrecy?

"Gwen? Gwen!"

She flinched at Morgana's harsh tone, then forced her lips into an apologetic smile as she turned to face the other woman.

"I'm sorry, did you need something?"

"I need you to do your job. Is that too much to ask?"

Gwen's eyes darted around the chamber, searching for some unfinished chore she'd forgotten to complete. It was a useless effort... the room was spotless.

"Nevermind," Morgana said brusquely, before her face relaxed into a more gentle expression. "Forgive me, Gwen. I'm just tired, that's all. I didn't mean to snap at you."

"No need to apologize, my lady. Shall I help you undress for bed?"

"That won't be necessary. Go on home. I'll see you in the morning."

Having learned the hard way not to question Morgana's orders, she left the chamber without another word.

Gwen lingered in the palace for another hour or so, stopping by to visit Gaius as she usually did when Merlin was away from home. The old physician would never admit it, but she knew how lonely it was for him to spend his evenings in an empty chamber without anyone else around to scold or coddle.

She let him feed her a bowl of stew and fuss over her for a little while, avoiding the temptation of inquiring after Arthur and Merlin's destination. Though it was difficult to contain her curiosity, and more than that, her worry, she kept reminding herself that the information wouldn't have been concealed from her without good reason.

The palace was mostly deserted by the time she headed home, with the exception of a few sleepy guards who nodded politely as she passed. She descended the final flight of stairs, only to stop dead in her tracks as she spotted a familiar figure clad in a purple velvet gown slipping silently around the corner at the other end of the corridor.

Why is Morgana sneaking down to the dungeons in the dead of night? she wondered fearfully.

A strong sense of self-preservation discouraged Gwen from following the other woman, yet her overwhelming curiosity wasn't to be dissuaded. She walked hesitantly in Morgana's footsteps, turning off with a sudden burst of inspiration at a much smaller corridor that led to a little used storage room filled with moth eaten bedding and dusty furniture.

Once she was safely inside, she smiled grimly as her eyes fell upon the grate in the middle of the floor. She stepped closer and leaned forward, listening intently.

"... with the Cup in our possession, Camelot would soon be at our mercy. Where is the Cup now?"

The hushed female voice was vaguely familiar, though Gwen couldn't quite place the speaker.

There was no mistaking Morgana, however, as she responded: "It's in the hands of the Druids. All I know is that their camp lies within Cenred's kingdom."

"Then perhaps Cenred will be of use to us again. He has spies everywhere. If he can have Arthur followed..."

"Then Arthur will lead us all the way to the Cup itself," Morgana said, every word positively dripping with malice.

"Indeed he will," the other speaker agreed. "Now return to your chamber and get some rest, Sister. We have much to accomplish in the days to come, and the people of Camelot will expect their queen to look her best."

Gwen pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp as the color drained from her face.

Just a few minutes later, she burst into the physician's chamber without warning, causing Gaius to jerk awake with a panicked cry of, "What? Who's there?!"

I'm sorry, Gaius! I'm sorry, it couldn't wait! Arthur... Merlin, they're walking into a trap! There's a Cup... I don't know what it is, but Morgana means to steal it with the help of her accomplice. Some woman who calls her 'Sister', though I couldn't tell who it was. Sh-she's going to try and take the throne!"

Gaius groaned as he rose stiffly from his bed, then shuffled over to the table to light a candle. "I can't begin to guess how they found out about the Cup, but I'm afraid the rest comes as little surprise. They didn't see you, did they?"

"N-no... but Gaius, we have to warn Arthur and Merlin! And you have to tell the king!"

Gaius sank heavily onto the bench, studying Gwen's frantic features with a kind, almost pitying expression as he spoke. "And what do you expect Uther would say if I told him his own d... beloved ward was a traitor with plans to steal the throne? How do you think he'd react to such an accusation, based on nothing more than the word of a servant?"

Gwen sighed. "I see your point. But we have to do something! If we can get word to Arthur, to Merlin, perhaps they can abandon this mission before it's too late..."

"I'm afraid that won't work either, Gwen. We couldn't hope to reach them in time, and the risk would be far too great if we tried. The only thing working in our favor right now is that Morgana doesn't realize we're aware of her plans. We must ensure it remains that way for as long as possible."

"What can we do?"

"Have faith in Merlin and Arthur, and hope for the best."

Three days later, Gwen found herself staring out Morgana's window at the massive army gathering just beyond the city gates, horrified not only by the impending threat they posed, but also by the idea that Morgana herself could have willingly invited such brutality upon the kingdom.

"Is it true they attack at dawn?" she whispered.

"I'm afraid so."

"And no word from Arthur?"


Gwen let out a shuddering sigh. "Then all is lost. We'll be massacred, every last one of us."

Morgana stepped closer with an unmistakably calculating expression on her face. "Not everyone has to die."

"What do you mean?"

"Those that defy them, those that choose to fight, they will surely die. But those who do not resist, those that choose to welcome change, they will have a future here. Everyone has a choice, Gwen."

She wanted so much to make a stand right then and there, to rail at her former friend and demand that she put an end to this madness. But to do so would mean surrendering what little power she had left, with only certain death waiting on the other side.

"You know I have always been loyal to you, Morgana. And I always will be."

The other woman's face broke into a smile, achingly reminiscent of the sweet expressions that had played across her features so frequently in the past. She took Gwen's hands in her own, her touch warm and gentle as she spoke.

"Then have no fear. No harm will come to you, I promise you that."

And for the briefest moment, Gwen almost wanted to take her side in truth, if only to cling to the overwhelming kindness that flowed from Morgana as her former friend reached out to embrace her.

Almost... but not quite.

Chapter Text

Chapter 69: Homecoming

"Another message for you."

"Now?" Lancelot sat up in bed, blinking sleepily at Percival. "It's the middle of the night."

"Sorry. The man said it was urgent."

"No, no need to apologize," he reassured his friend with a groggy smile. "I'm just surprised by the hour, that's all."

Percival nodded. "I'll leave you to it then."

As soon as the door closed, Lancelot hurriedly broke the seal and unfolded the sheet of parchment, frowning in momentary confusion as his eyes fell upon a single sentence.

Tell me what I was doing in the woods on the day we first met.

"You were about to be mauled by a winged monster?" he said uncertainly.

Nothing happened.

He closed his eyes in concentration as he delved more deeply into his memories. "You were gathering something for supper. Yes, that's it... you were gathering mushrooms."

The parchment grew warm in his hands as the page filled with line after line of a handwriting that was as familiar to him as his own. He smiled to himself, taking a moment to appreciate Merlin's extraordinary gifts before he started to read.

We're in hiding in a cave about half a mile south of that place – myself, Arthur, Gaius, Gwaine, and Elyan. Morgana has turned traitor; she's raised an army, Lancelot, and not just any army. Because of her treachery, an extremely powerful Cup was stolen, then used to make these soldiers immortal. What are we to do now? Camelot's knights stand little chance against a legion of enemies who can't die.

With the help of King Cenred and her sister, Morgause, Morgana has succeeded in taking Uther's crown and has claimed sovereignty over the kingdom. Hundreds of innocent people have been slain, and Arthur... well, he's lost all faith.

Lancelot, I think it's only fair to tell you that if you choose to come to our aid, death is a far more likely outcome than victory. But I can't surrender hope just yet. I won't give up as long as there's even a ghost of a chance we may yet find a way to defeat them.

I don't know if this letter will reach you in time, if you even receive it at all, but I had to try. All I can do now is hope.

Hope seems to be the only thing left for us anymore.

Five minutes later, Lancelot pounded on the door to Percival's room, meeting the other man's expression of curiosity with a grimly determined smile. All of his worldly possessions had been shoved hastily into a satchel he wore slung over one shoulder.

"I'm leaving for Camelot," he said quietly, thrusting the letter out for Percival to read. "I'm not asking you to accompany me, I just didn't want to leave without explanation."

Percival shook his head and grinned. "I would've been with you either way, but knowing that bastard Cenred is behind this? Couldn't stop me if you tried. I'll grab my things."

The three days it took to reach their destination might well have been three years as far as Lancelot was concerned. There were so many unanswered questions to ponder – why had Morgana turned against the people who loved her? Where was the king, and was he even still alive? An immortal army, aided by magic... was it possible that Merlin held the power to diminish their strength somehow?

But all of these questions paled in comparison to the single thought that burned itself into Lancelot's mind, nearly driving him mad with anxiety.

Where is Gwen?

Merlin hadn't listed her name among the small group of survivors who were hiding out in the cave. Was this an intentional oversight, the way he normally avoided any mention of her in their correspondence? Surely in this case, he would overlook that habit of careful omission, wouldn't he? He had to know Lancelot would be plagued with worry over her fate.

... unless she was already dead and Merlin hadn't had the heart to break the news to him.

No, that couldn't be it. He would've felt it if she'd been slain, for all the hope in his heart, the belief, the enduring faith, would've died along with her. No, she was alive and well, and if she wasn't with Merlin and Arthur, then he would find her somehow. There was no other option.

Once Lancelot managed to set aside his immediate fears, other thoughts of Gwen dominated his consciousness. What would she think when she saw him again after all this time? Would she still be angry? Could he somehow make her understand why he'd done what he'd done? More importantly, what could he possibly do to make it up to her?

Maybe she wasn't involved with Arthur, but was she in love with someone else by now? Or could there be some small chance they might yet have a future together?

Maybe it was absurd to dwell on that hypothetical future when even the present was so uncertain. But just the idea of seeing her again made it impossible to believe they wouldn't prevail against their enemies, immortal or not. How was it possible to even consider death when there was so much to live for, so many things that remained unsaid and undone?

Percival left him alone with his thoughts throughout the journey, only speaking for practical reasons such as needing to water the horses or suggesting they stop for a bite to eat. Lancelot was grateful for his friend's silent, placid demeanor... it went a long way in soothing his own inner turmoil.

His senses were overtaken with a rush of excitement as they finally crossed over the border into the kingdom of Camelot. How many years had it been since he'd seen the place he still thought of as home? It seemed like another lifetime to him now, and yet everything about the beloved lands that lay before him was intimately familiar, as if he'd only been away for an overnight journey.

But his initial elation came screeching to a halt as the gruesome reality he'd only imagined based on Merlin's letter began to materialize before his eyes. The unmistakable signs of wanton destruction were everywhere – villages burned, crops flattened, while unnatural silence spread across the land in every direction. Lancelot avoided looking at Percival's face, if only because he didn't want to see his own worst fears reflected back at him.

He couldn't bear the thought that they'd come too late.

As they drew closer to the city itself, a thick, portentous cloud of smoke became visible in the distance. Lancelot swallowed hard as he was given his first glimpse of the towering spires that marked the Citadel... heavily damaged and smoke scarred, still smoldering in places. His stomach twisted with nausea, a sensation that wasn't helped by the mutilated bodies of soldiers that began to appear more frequently on either side of the path upon which they rode, clad in painfully familiar red cloaks stained with deeper shades of crimson.

There was not a single fallen enemy among them.

"Turn left here," Lancelot said gruffly, and they departed from the well beaten road onto a winding forest trail. "We'll have to leave the horses when we get a little closer. I won't risk discovery more than is absolutely necessary."

They dismounted and left their mounts in a secluded grassy meadow beside a small, swift running stream. It wasn't what Lancelot would have preferred, but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances.

And there it was... the fallen log behind which he and Merlin had hidden from an unidentified monster so many years before. Lancelot had been wounded at the time, on the brink of unconsciousness, and yet the memory was as sharp and clear as any he'd ever known. How young they'd been – Merlin, barely more than a boy with a sweet, awkward nature, and Lancelot, naive, idealistic, genuinely believing himself to be on the brink of greatness. How much had changed, and yet somehow, the core of who he was, who they both were, had remained intact.

"South," he said quietly. "Keep to the trees."


But he heard it just before Percival whispered his name. His heart thudded violently in his chest, in time with the rhythm of scores of pounding feet. Soldiers, and not allies by any means... black patches of uniform flashed and then disappeared on the other side of the thicket where the two men were secluded, no more than a few dozen paces from the cave they were trying to reach.

"It seems we've arrived just in time," Lancelot breathed anxiously. "The hiding place has been discovered."

"What do we do?"

"We follow."

What happened next was a blur of frantic motion. There was an excited shout and then the soldiers rushed forward, filling Lancelot's heart with dread as they fell upon their prey. In the distance, he spotted Arthur's golden hair glinting in the sunlight, though the small group that was fleeing along with him were impossible to distinguish as they slipped like shadows through the trees. Their flight seemed increasingly hopeless as the soldiers closed in behind them... until Lancelot saw where they were headed.

"Come on!" he shouted at Percival, swerving abruptly to the left and ascending a steep slope. "We have to find a way to cut them off! It's our only chance!"

And then he spotted her – an unmistakable wealth of dark curls flashing briefly before his eyes as she followed the others toward the narrow passageway below. A feeling of overwhelming relief flooded his senses, swiftly followed by panicked desperation as he threw his body against the first boulder he came to, straining with all his might.

There was no need to call out directions to Percival, which was a good thing; Lancelot's vocal capabilities had been reduced to an unintelligible series of heavy pants and forceful grunts. Together they managed to position several of the larger rocks just at the edge of the precipice, and then... one heartbeat... two...

"Now!" he gritted out, and the men gave a mighty shove.

The boulders toppled down into the ravine with a deafening crash, effectively barring the way between the soldiers and their quarry. He shared a breathless, triumphant grin with Percival, and then with his heart pounding in a way he couldn't completely credit to his recent exertions, he stepped forward to peer over the edge.

And in that first glance, the rest of the world faded to nothing. All he saw was Gwen.

The expression on her upturned face was a heady combination of unmistakable joy and shocked disbelief as he devoured the sight of her. She gasped his name aloud, the sound reaching his ears with a sweetness that brought tears to his eyes, and for the briefest moment, no thought entered his mind other than how desperately he'd missed her and what a fool he'd been to ever leave her side.

But then reality intruded again, recalling the precariousness of their current situation and the urgent need to press on.

"We need to hurry."

With Percival behind him, Lancelot ventured down into the ravine with the intention of helping the others make the steep ascension. It would do no good to follow the main path that sloped gently upward to meet level ground. Their enemy would surely be anticipating such a thing, and might even now be lying in wait for them.

His first impulse was to help Gwen, but the dark skinned man, the one he didn't recognize, was already at her side with an arm wrapped firmly around her waist.

"Missed your chance, my friend," Gwaine goaded quietly as he passed.

Gwaine... how had he failed to notice his estranged companion until that moment?

And then he knew the answer, which wasn't even entirely based upon his enormous preoccupation with seeing Gwen again. It was because Gwaine looked perfectly at home in this setting, blending seamlessly into the world of Merlin, Arthur, Gwen... all the things that truly meant something to him. It only made sense that they should have all been brought together this way, so much that he didn't think to question it further.

Telling himself this wasn't the time to worry about the stranger who was hovering over Gwen almost possessively, Lancelot joined Merlin as his friend struggled to help Gaius with the short, yet treacherous climb. It was a bit awkward, but with his and Percival's assistance, the elderly man reached higher ground without mishap.

"I think it's safe to stop here," Arthur called a short time later, after they'd put half a league or so between themselves and the scene of the avalanche. "Let's pause and catch our breath before we press on. Do we have any water?"

"Right here," Merlin said as he handed over a flask. "I believe Elyan has some, too."

When they glanced over, the man who'd been helping Gwen before was pressing a water skin into her hand as he leaned close to murmur something in her ear. Lancelot pushed away a sharp twinge of jealousy, focusing his attention on Arthur as the other man spoke again.

"I take it that rock fall wasn't an accident."

"This is Percival," he replied fondly as he clapped his friend on the shoulder. "It was his strength that brought them down."

Percival looked suddenly shy. "Your Highness."

The prince scoffed at the formal address. "Arthur," he insisted with a warm smile that melted away any trace of uncertainty in Percival's expression, replacing it with a huge grin.

"Arthur it is."

"What were you doing here?"

Merlin spoke up before Lancelot could formulate a response. "It was me. I sent for him."

Arthur nodded, turning back to Lancelot and Percival with another appraising look. "Well, we owe you our lives. Thank you."

As the conversation hit a lull, Lancelot's eyes drifted back to Gwen. She'd been watching him already, giving him a gentle smile as he turned his head in her direction. He took a deep breath, his heart pounding in his chest as he made ready to approach her. But before he could move, she suddenly averted her gaze, focusing her attention on the man he'd identified as Elyan.

Who was he? Was she in love with him? It certainly seemed that way, judging by the way they interacted with one another. Well, if that were the case, he'd just have to swallow his feelings and figure out how to live with the idea. Despite all the years he'd spent trying to convince himself that the love between them had ended, even that she'd be better off with someone else, his heart simply refused to believe it.

Perhaps it never would.

"Time to move on!" Arthur called out, and Lancelot followed faithfully in his footsteps.

And then suddenly none of it mattered – their destination, the uncertainty of their future, what unthinkable perils lay ahead. Even his unease about Gwen's affections could be set aside for the time being. A single voice in his mind pushed through the tangle of confusion, warming him from head to heel with its silent proclamation.

At long last, I am home.