"An insult to every noble family in the Five Kingdoms."
"If only his father were still here to command him to stop this foolishness. It's normal for a boy to enjoy himself with his servants, but what grown man ever dreamt of marrying one?"
"It's no good trying to talk to him though. He won't see reason."
"Well, at least she's of hardy peasant stock. If nothing else we know she'll have no trouble bearing him an heir."
Two weeks after her wedding, Gwen bleeds, and it's exactly the same as it always was.
Well, of course it is. Hasn't Arthur been going around for years saying that blood is blood, a nobleman's worth no more than any other man's, and didn't Gwen help to convince him of that truth? Besides that, Gwen spent years washing noble blood – royal blood – out of Morgana's undergarments; the sense memory of the icy water on her fingers will always be with her. It's not as though she thought becoming queen would make all the regular aches and inconveniences of being a woman in the world go away.
She knows it's silly, but she can't help being disappointed. Being queen hasn't made her feel different, but being a wife has. She's already grown accustomed to the wet warmth of Arthur's kisses on her breast, the careful weight of him on top of her, the sweet strangeness of him moving inside her.
She loves this man, and her body's taken him in. It seems wrong now that it should be casting everything away, like refuse. Maybe just because it's the first time.
"The queen spoke well in the council meeting today."
"It's true, I never would have expected so much from a girl without formal teaching, but she speaks sense."
"And he pays more attention to her than he does to any of us!"
They laugh, indulgently.
"Still, two years and no heir."
"Elena or Mithian would have borne him a son by now, and brought alliances between the kingdoms as well."
Whenever she appears at court she feels their eyes on her. Oh, the knights are fine – Elyan and most of the others smile and look her in the eye. Lancelot, dear Lancelot, always bows his head, seldom looks above her feet. Merlin acts like it's old times, trying to share a smirk with her whenever Arthur's being especially pompous. She practically has to glare at him to remind him they can't get away with that kind of thing anymore; people are paying attention now.
It's the other nobles who make her uncomfortable. Uther's men, the ones too old to fight, and the ladies who've never forgiven her for not being one of them. They're not as openly contemptuous as at first, but more attentive, more focused. Pretending to lower their gaze in respect like Lancelot, they are studying her belly, watching for the telltale roundness.
She avoids court during her monthly bleeding. She tells Arthur she's tired, that these fine gowns are too constricting when she hurts like this. The truth is she's terrified they'll notice the smell, or perhaps the shape of her clothes. The other truth is that every time it happens she feels the same deep disappointment, the same sense of failure, and she knows she's not fit company for anyone.
The regular timing of her disappearances must make it just as obvious as if they could see the blood for themselves. But at least this way she doesn't have to hear the huffs and murmurs of disapproval.
Gwen counts the days, learns her body's rhythm as she never knew it before. The nights when she's most fertile Arthur is always with her, and sometimes even during the days she'll pull him away from the throne room or the training ground because (she tells the messengers, or Merlin, or she breathes in his ear herself), she needs him, urgently.
And if, during the rest of the month, they might pleasure each other with their mouths, or simply lie in each other's arms and breathe each other's warm scent, at these times she always makes sure that he spills his seed inside her. Take it in she tells her body silently while aloud she pants his name. He's yours, so take him in, and keep him.
"I don't think he ever beds her at all. He always did prefer the company of men. Those knights young knights of his, and Merlin…"
"It's the kingdom turned up-side-down. First he makes one servant a queen, then he makes another his advisor, outranking all of us. And now we're meant to accept magic as legal and bow down to Merlin the court sorcerer!"
"And five years without an heir."
"She's already past her prime."
"Queen Vivian's never forgiven him, you know. And with the armies she commands now, she could take down Camelot with a single strike."
"So could anyone."
"So could anyone."
"Merlin, there must be something you can do."
"Are you joking?"
"Do you think I would joke about this?"
"You understand that's exactly what Uther wanted, don't you?"
"But if he ended up with Arthur," she whispered, "if we ended up with Arthur it must have been worth it."
"We ended up with thousands of people dead because of who they were, Gwen. Not to mention Uther losing the only woman he ever loved, and Arthur growing up without a mother. How could you possibly think I would risk that? How could you think Arthur would?"
Gwen's not used to being shouted at, especially not recently, and least of all by her best friend. It reminds her of the day Arthur had her banished, and she fights the urge to go down on her knees and beg. She can't fight off the tears.
"No, Gwen, please don't."
"You're right," she chokes out as he puts his arms around her. "I know you're right. It would be worse for the kingdom than even this. But there's nothing –"
She can't get any more words out after that, and Merlin, hard as he tries, can't seem to find much to say either. But he holds her and rubs her back and says, "You'll be okay, we'll think of something, it'll be all right," until she's only quiet and grateful, with no thoughts left.
Arthur let's her get as far as "Maybe Merlin could" before he cuts her off, "No," and storms off to the training field.
"Everyone understands that you care deeply for the queen. Indeed, we have all come to love her over these long years."
"I take your point, Sir Edmund."
"It is not unreasonable that a king whose first wife is barren should take another. The laws –"
"You will not speak of this again."
"My lord, you must think of your kingdom."
"Sir Lancelot, remove this man from my council."
She sighs, wishing she could be the one to decide that a conversation is not worth having. But she's not selfish enough to push the topic away just because it hurts to talk about it. "You can't think I don't hear them."
"I know you do."
"Have you considered it?"
He shakes his head. "There would be no point. They act as if you're to blame, but it's no coincidence. I'm my father's son. He couldn't… We've discussed this before. I won't repeat his mistakes. Anyway, there is no one."
"Then how can you think there would be anyone else for me? How could you even begin to think that I could –"
"Because there was, Gwen. Because there was someone else, and he's a good, noble man."
"Arthur, I would never –" And she stops herself, waiting for him to say, but you did. Her mind does it for her, for the guilt has never really gone away.
"I'm not…" Arthur says quietly. "I'm not the jealous young man I was once. I'm not going to order you, or him, one way or the other. But tell me, Guinevere, is the thought of it impossible? Is he repulsive to you? Tell me that you've never once thought of taking him back, and I won't mention it again."
Gwen cannot lie to him. "I love you," she says.
Arthur sighs. "That was never in question." He smiles softly. "I sometimes think it would be easier if it were. I think of the kind of marriage my father tried to arrange for me, the kind most of the court still wish I'd ended up in."
Gwen has to laugh then. "Oh, Arthur," she says. "If there's one thing our affair has never been, it's convenient."
They stay in their rooms and don't hear what the nobles say about it. Lancelot comes to them.
He came to them with his head bowed. Of course he did.
"Arthur tells me he didn't command you," Gwen says gently, thinking this is a mistake, thinking there is no way she'll get him to take his clothes off or look her in the eye at this point, let alone couple with her. The most they've ever done is kiss, and that was a lifetime ago. But she keeps her voice steady as she continues, "I want you to know that I wouldn't command that either."
"Yes, my lady," he says.
"Lancelot," says Arthur, laying a hand on the knight's shoulder, calculated and light, "we've known each other a long time now. All of us. We've been through a lot, and we've no reason to doubt your loyalty. Gwen and I are so grateful that you'd want to help us."
There are some moments of silence, and Arthur and Gwen can only exchange a helpless look.
"So...if you want I can give you two some privacy –"
"No," Lancelot says quickly. "No, don't leave, please."
Then everyone goes still again.
Gwen lets her mind wander for a while and then, almost thinking out loud, says ,"I think back to before we all knew each other. Do you remember, Lancelot, when we first met?"
"Of course," he blurts out.
Gwen stands up and moves closer to him. "It was just you and me and another man I cared about very much. And we weren't embarrassed to touch each other then. It was so easy!"
She hasn't got a tape measure, but she spreads out her fingers when she touches his chest, as if she were measuring him again, the muscle he had then and the extra bulk he's gained with the years. Arthur's still got an arm across his shoulders, holding him steady.
"And I said, Camelot needed people like you. Ordinary people like you and me and Merlin." She touches her husband's hand and smiles at him as she adds, "That was before I understood that Arthur was a man of flesh and blood too, not just a title and a lot of very nice clothes. You know that about us, don't you?"
Lancelot nods. Arthur frowns at her briefly but she kisses him better. Then she sets her fingers around Lancelot's neck, feels the hot blood pulsing under them as he murmurs, "I remember." She feels him swallow before he continues, "I remember that day. You were so confident, so beautiful."
Gwen remembers tripping over her own words, calling back half the things she said because she didn't want to seem too forward. She puts that memory away and says, "Let's do what we should have done a long time ago. Let's not be a king and a queen and a knight. Let's be ordinary."
They don't couple that night, but they do spend a lot of time kissing.
The next night he comes dressed in a loose white shirt like the one he wore when they first met. He lets Arthur take it off him. Arthur takes off Gwen's dress as well, and Lancelot touches her breast.
Her body cycles on, and after a few more nights she knows it's unlikely anything they do will get her pregnant. But it's not as if she'd turn him away.
Gwen isn't sure how ordinary it is, really, to kiss one man on the mouth while another man pushes up her skirts to fondle her thighs. It's the first time she's ever reached between a man's legs and grabbed him (measuring she thinks somewhat giddily) while another man pinches her nipple and the two men kiss each other, so she doesn't have anything to compare it to. She feels good, though, with Arthur's solid, familiar warmth at her back, Arthur's devoted kisses in her hair, and Lancelot's hungry mouth at her breasts, Lancelot's fingers slipping between her folds. She is ordinary, oh yes, she is splendidly vulgar as her two lovers take her.
She bleeds again, but she doesn't cry about it this time. It won't be long now.
"The queen is positively glowing."
"Ten years I've been watching for that bump in her belly. It's hard to believe it's actually there."
"You don't think she could just be pretending, could she?"
"If they were pretending, the king wouldn't be holding back a scowl."
"What do you mean?"
"It's obvious he's used magic."
"He's his father's son, after all."
"And he's worried some evil might befall her."
"It would be worth it though, for a son."
"Of course it would, for Camelot!"
"I'm glad the king's finally seen some sense."
"And those peasants he's so fond of are finally making themselves useful."
Lancelot stays with them through the pregnancy. Even when Gwen's so sore and tired she can't stand to be touched and doesn't want to talk to anyone, her men are nearby.
Merlin's with her through nearly a day of pushing and straining. He chants incantations while she screams, eases her pain with magic and his touch.
Afterwards he brings Arthur and Lancelot to her. Lancelot kneels by the bed, stroking back Gwen's sweaty curls. Arthur holds the baby, studying its face so intently that anxiety starts to creep in through Gwen's exhaustion. But when finally he looks at her again his smile is bright and genuine.
"A boy," he whispers. "We did it, Gwen."
"We really did," she answers, clutching Lancelot's hand. "Our own baby boy. Our son."