Her father's death is sudden and unexpected. Although he has been sick for a while, it isn't the lingering cough that does for him in the end. A peaceful man in life, he dies a warrior's death, a hero's death, protecting his only daughter from a would-be assassin.
For all that her father has been a just and benevolent ruler, there have never been any shortage of enemies in Camelot – those that think the king and kingdom weak and ripe for the plucking, those who have been refused the princess's hand in marriage, those who imagine they have a claim to the throne, those such as Uther Pendragon who disagree with Camelot's tolerant stance on magic. And there is one such enemy among the entertainers who had come to the castle to perform that evening, it seems.
Guinevere strikes the assassin down, hitting him across the head with a heavy jug, and rushes to her father's side, but it is clear that the wound is mortal.
"You will be a good queen," the king croaks, managing a smile, "You are kind-hearted and level-headed and think always of your people. I am proud of you."
She shakes her head, silent sobs wracking her body, feeling small and alone and nothing like a queen at all.
It is Lancelot, Duc du Lac, Captain of the King's personal guard who finds them first.
"I called," Gwen says, hoarse, "I couldn't..."
Lancelot shakes his head.
"The guard were unconscious, your highness," he informs her. "I could not rouse them. Drugged or enchanted, I do not know which."
"Have Gaius look into it," she says, and her voice sounds faint and distant. Lancelot rushes to her side and helps her to her feet. She can hardly feel the pressure of his arm around her shoulder, his hand on her arm. She feels light-headed, like she's hardly there and this is a dream. His voice is comforting, though, deep and safe and familiar, not asking anything of her.
There's blood on her nightgown. Distantly she registers something being wrapped around her shoulders to cover her – Lancelot's cloak. She's hardly aware of where he's taking her, or the bustle around her as maidservants flock to Lancelot's call, always eager to help their beloved princess. It's Lancelot, though, and not a maidservant who coaxes her into the bed and draws the coverlet over her shaking shoulders.
She thinks vaguely that it should have been Arthur, but somehow does not mind that it isn't.
When Gwen wakes the next morning it is to find herself in chambers she does not recognise, with a girl she has known most of her life looking at her fearfully and calling her your majesty. She wants nothing more than to hide beneath the coverlet and burrow her way back into sleep so she does not have to face the dismal dawn but she cannot. She has been raised to do her duty and she will not fail at the first test of her courage and fortitude. She asks for water and fresh clothes. She can't stomach even a mouthful of her breakfast but by the time she's washed and dressed she can hold her chin up high and walk to the hall with something resembling the regal grace which is expected of her.
Lancelot is there already, and she allows her stoic mask to drop, a little. She wonders if he has slept himself at all. It was Lancelot's honour and dedication as much as his noble birth that prompted her father to give him titles and positions of responsibility in the household. She knows that he has sworn a vow all but wedding himself to the service of their family. He has, in any case, shown no inclination to take a wife, whether he has taken a vow of chastity or not, although not for lack of offers. For a long time she thought he was one, like Merlin, who did not take pleasure in the company of women, but there had been a rash and tragically short-lived affair with a woman named Elaine, a traitor in hiding, some years ago. She cannot say what he is to her, faithful like a true servant, respected as an advisor, loved like a brother. Sometimes he seems so much a part of herself that she thinks she must have imagined him, other times he is the only solid presence in the ever changing shifts of loyalty and affection that characterise court life.
He drops to one knee when he sees her.
"Get up, please," she entreats him before he can speak. He has seen her at some of her worst moments and she does not have the energy to stand on ceremony today with him of all people.
"I am sorry for your loss," he says, and though it's hardly the first time she's heard it today, mumbled like all those your majesties as she swept past servants and courtiers and supplicants, it sounds fresh and genuine on his lips.
"Thank you," she says, tired, pinching her brows together. Lancelot reels off a list of things he has organised, time for her to sit and hold vigil with her father, councils which must be addressed, arrangements for the funeral and coronation. Those two events were always going to be held in close proximity, but it makes her heave a heavy sigh nonetheless. She's grateful for this attention to practical matters, quickly talking through those that need changing and delegating duties. As the only heir, her father had always made sure she had a thorough understanding of how a kingdom ought to be run; not for her sitting idly in a tower embroidering cushions or counting her jewellery.
She turns to see Arthur striding towards her and she smiles.
"Your majesty," he says, stopping to bow. "My sword is yours." Gwen bites her lip as the words where were you threaten to spill out. Even if it had been Arthur who had come to her chambers, it would have been awkward, she wouldn't want him to have seen her like that, blood-stained and tear-stained and weak.
The revels of the night before seem so long ago, days and not mere hours. It had been a double celebration, her birthday and the public announcement of her betrothal to Arthur. She's lucky in that her father had allowed her to make her own choice in marriage and raised no objection to Arthur not being nobly born, or being the son of a notorious traitor. After Uther's death at his own hand, the King had offered to train his son as a squire. Arthur had refused at first, but returned to claim his place among the knights and Guinevere's heart.
She holds out a hand and Arthur embraces her. Lancelot withdraws silently.
"I'm sorry, your majesty," Gaius says as he approaches. Gwen doesn't think she will be able to hear those four words ever again without thinking of this long and wicked day.
"Gaius," she greets her father's old friend and most trusted advisor. "The guards?"
"Drugged, it seems. A simple potion. I could find no traces of magic." That at least will keep the anti-magic faction at bay.
"And my father? Was there – if I had been quicker to act..."
"There was nothing you could have done, Gwen," Gaius says kindly and she loves him for the familiar diminutive. "There's no sorcerer in the land who can turn the tide of death." She nods gratefully, although she knows and he knows that there is one sorcerer who could. Was one sorcerer. Merlin is a name rarely said out loud since he sacrificed himself to close a tear in the veil between worlds to save them all. A dear friend to her, and Arthur and Lancelot; practically a son to Gaius. So much death, she thinks sadly, recalling how Gaius wept at the memorial, how Arthur went still and stiff and silent, spending hours at the training ground fighting straws in the wind; grief an invisible enemy he would never be able to get the better of.
She keeps vigil in the long hall all that night. When she emerges, Lancelot is there, standing guard outside.
"Lancelot," she says, surprised. "Where are the other guards?"
"I sent them home. I didn't... I didn't want you to feel like you were alone." The sun breaks through the high window, illuminating his face, tired and noble and devoted. "I want you to know that --" he stops, suddenly, as if unsure. She doesn't think she has ever seen Lancelot unsure in her life. "That you have a friend."
He can't have slept in two days. She wonders if he's eaten, either.
"Come on," she says, smiling. "Let's get some breakfast."
Gwen barely remembers any of the coronation; it goes by in something of a blur of cheers and smiling faces, the unfamiliar weight of the crown on her head and the proud look in Lancelot's eyes as she turns to face her court, a chorus of 'long live the queen' ringing out all around her. Why his should be the one face in the crowd her eyes are drawn to she doesn't know.
The weight of the crown is both a literal and metaphorical burden. Gwen sighs with relief every time she takes it off, grateful that she does not have to wear it all the time. She wishes for nothing more than peace in her reign, prosperity for her people, but it is so difficult to make everyone agree on the best methods to achieve this. She is beginning to think that a queen has no power at all, merely the impossible task of trying to please all of her squabbling advisors.
Those hungry for power crawl out of the woodwork, barons of distant fiefdoms coming to pledge their loyalty, long lost relatives suddenly appearing, all concern for her wellbeing. There is an uncle she has never met before, Helios, estranged from her father but now repentant and solicitous for her notice and favour. Although she wishes to establish herself as queen in her own right, she finds herself relying most on those advisors her father trusted most closely, Gaius, Geoffrey, and especially Lancelot who was always more than simply Captain of the guard, and who can be relied on to think a situation through and find ways to resolve it with the least amount of conflict.
There are more suits than ever for her hand, despite her public betrothal. More men than she could possibly have imagined, royal and noble and neither, seem to think she can be ruled through marriage. Her wedding to Arthur has been necessarily delayed by the funeral and coronation. There are only so many feasts a castle can manage in such short succession, and as her advisors tell her, it doesn't hurt to dangle the possibility that she may accept one of these many offers of marriage for a while longer. She dislikes the deception in some ways, but it harms no-one. Arthur is willing to wait and she herself is in no rush for more change in her life, to learn all the ways she must submit to a husband. Their courtship has been chaste, and while she is sure that all that must follow, will follow, it is not something either of them seem to feel the desire to hurry.
Those who aren't courting her are gearing up for a fight. Queen Annis sends spies across the Northern borders and Guinevere's advisors bicker over the best way to deal with the intrusion. Geoffrey gives long lectures on the fragile history between their two nations while Gaius urges caution. Helios is all for a show of strength and refusing to back down or tolerate any infringement on their borders. For all she has allowed him a place at court, though, she is wise enough to treat his words with caution. She turns to Lancelot for his counsel, and he suggests they treat with Annis and see what she wants, and she agrees.
It amazes Gwen that practically an entire army is needed to attend negotiations. The encampent stretches as far as she can see in all directions, her own royal tent in the centre. It seems to her that it shows little faith in the process of negotiation to bring so many soldiers. However, she must follow the advice she has been given, and this is one way of showing strength without bloodshed. Besides, it wouldn't do to be caught in an ambush, after all.
In the end Arthur takes matters into his own hands in a way that displeases Gwen greatly, offering himself up in single combat. Once the offer has been made it can hardly be rescinded, but she gives him no favour, caught between worry for his safety, for the consequences of his actions and anger at his presumption and his persistent conviction that fighting is the only way to resolve any crisis. She doesn't want to watch, but can hardly refuse to appear, only years of training keeping her from wincing as he receives blow after blow.
Arthur wins, of course he wins, he's the best knight in the five kingdoms, and Annis agrees to Gwen's terms. Gwen keeps her anger tightly reigned during negotiations, using it to her advantage in driving a hard bargain, but explodes in a fit of fury when she stalks into Arthur's tent.
"What were you thinking?" she demands.
"I was thinking I was securing the treaty without bloodshed," he says, defiant.
"And what if your blood had been shed? What if you had lost?" His jaw is set and she knows there's no getting through to him that way. "That aside, it wasn't your decision to make. I am queen, Arthur. If we are to be married you will be my consort and help me to rule but you do not get to make my decisions for me, do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, your majesty," he replies, and it only makes her crosser, because she doesn't think he's really understood what she's saying to him. He wishes to share the burden of ruling and decision making and she loves him for it, but her consort will not be king., she cannot be ruled by her husband. She must be seen to be strong in her own right, making her own decisions. She's not a princess in a tower in need of a knight in shining armour, she's a queen and she needs to command respect.
A month or so after the treaty with Annis is signed, Gwen finds herself the recipient of yet another marriage proposal. The lord in question, Agravaine, delivers his proposal in purpose and she is not which is more repugnant, the way he stares at her décolletage as he speaks or the fact that he is actually an uncle of Arthur's. She gives him the usual polite refusal, sighing deeply when he leaves the audience chamber. Enough is enough, she decides, and announces to her council that she will marry Arthur in a fortnight's time.
The quill Lancelot is writing with snaps as she imparts the good news but he congratulates her effusively and sets about planning the celebrations.
"I don't know what I would do without you, Lancelot," she says.
There is to be a three-day tournament to celebrate the queen's nuptials, a display of the finest swordsmen and the most accomplished sorcerers. The magical tournament will serve a second purpose, too, finding somebody to fill the vacant post of Court Sorcerer.
There is some debate as to whether it is fitting for Arthur to enter the tournament himself, but he will not hear of sitting on the sidelines as his knights joust, declaring that nothing will prove his worth as a husband better than winning the tourney for his future wife's honour. Gwen knows how much proving himself on the field or the tournament grounds means to Arthur so she refrains from pointing out that there are qualities to be desired in a husband other than skill with a sword.
(Her maidservant whispers that three days of sweaty men hitting each other with swords sounds like the best wedding gift anyone could ask for and couldn't she, as queen, command that they all compete with their shirts off. Gwen throws back her head and laughs heartily at the idea.)
Arthur breezes through the first rounds of the tournament, hardly breaking a sweat. He sits beside Gwen in the stands as the would-be sorcerers take to the circle for the first round of the melee. There are some gasps from the crowds as the sorcerers conjure lights from their hands and fireballs and small whirlwinds. Then a tall, hooded figure from the back of the ring steps forwards and raises his hands and the rest of the competitors freeze instantly, not one of them able to move so much as a muscle.
What's going on? Are they dead? No, just frozen. Who is that? The whispers and speculation ripple around the audience.
"It would appear we have a champion in this first round," Gwen declares, rising, and those around her rise too. She takes a step forward. "Reveal yourself, sir."
The man pushes back his hood to reveal messy black hair above familiar features, lips quirking as if it is a struggle to keep a straight face.
"Merlin!" Arthur exclaims beside her, gripping onto the barrier on front of them so hard his knuckles turn white.
Merlin is accorded a place of honour at the Queen's table, the dinner attended by only Guinevere and a few of her closest advisors and knights, Lancelot, Arthur and Gaius among them. None of them can help staring at him. Gwen smiles in amazement at the unexpected joy of her friend and Court Sorcerer returned to her. Lancelot's looks are more cautious, searching, but whatever he sees seems to satisfy him, as he smiles at Merlin at last. Arthur looks as though he has seen a ghost, although he has embraced Merlin long and hard enough to be assured he is solid.
Merlin looks much the same as he did before he vanished, a little thinner, perhaps, a shade sharper of feature. Gaius insists that there is no magical trickery, it is truly him, Merlin being probably the only sorcerer in the five kingdoms strong enough to raise himself from the dead.
"I wasn't dead," Merlin says, breaking off a piece of bread, "At least I don't think so. I was... trapped. Inside something green and living. It took a while to remember who I was and who – where I wanted to be. To come home to." There's a haunted look in his eyes and Gwen follows the direction of his gaze, to find Arthur on the receiving end. Then Merlin blinks and turns to her. "I am glad to have found my way back to Camelot, your majesty."
"And we are glad to have you back, Merlin," she says. "There has been much sadness in Camelot of late."
"Much joy too," Merlin says, "I hear I am just in time for your wedding."
"Two days time," Gwen smiles, laying her hand over Arthur's.
"I am afraid I have left it late to find a gift," Merlin says, with a self-deprecating gesture.
"Your return is the greatest gift we could wish for," Gwen says. "Isn't that right, Arthur?"
"Yes," Arthur says, his voice rough and scratchy. When Gwen looks across at Lancelot she sees he is frowning, but doesn't know why.
The second day of the tournament progresses as expected: Arthur is victorious in all his fights, although he seems a little distracted, Gwen thinks. He wears her colours on his arm, scraps of material fluttering in the breeze. Merlin dazzles all present with his displays of magical power, some of his tricks more for show than anything else, she suspects. Merlin, too, wears colours on one arm, the bright crimson a contrast to his black garb. She asks Lancelot if he knows whose colours Merlin wears. He hesitates before saying he does not, and if it were not for the guarded manner of their interactions she might have suspected they were his. She dislikes the thought that it might be like that between them, although she cannot say why.
Gwen goes to Arthur's tent to congratulate him on his victory. It isn't quite the done thing for the queen to do this; under normal circumstances she would receive knights from her raised dais at the side of the tournament grounds. But these are not normal circumstances, Arthur will be her husband tomorrow, and she thinks there is no harm in visiting in person to offer a kiss as a prize for his efforts this day.
As she reaches the tent, someone brushes past her on the way out: Merlin, pale and distressed, not even stopping to greet her. She frowns at the oddity, but recalls that he is but recently returned from experiences beyond the veil of this world, that none of them can even begin to imagine.
Arthur is flushed and breathing hard, only to be expected after his exertions on the field. He smiles at her teasing offer of a kiss to be claimed, but the light doesn't reach his eyes.
Gwen finds it hard to sleep. In the morning she will be married. There is a fine silk lilac dress laid out, waiting, her ceremonial crown polished and ready. That there will be a suitably rich spectacle is not in doubt. She smiles as she imagines Arthur crowned Prince Consort of Camelot. The crown, the title, the role will all suit him well. And yet. She will be gaining not only a Prince but a husband. A lover. When, as a girl, barely old enough to understand all of what marriage entailed, she imagined the night before her wedding, she had always thought that she would part reluctantly from her husband-to-be, waiting impatiently for the morning and he night to follow. Yet there seems a distance between them still. She loves Arthur, but cannot quite imagine baring her body and soul to become as one with him. Perhaps all brides feel this way, she reflects, wedding-night nerves of a virgin bride can hardly be uncommon. She wishes her mother had lived longer, that she might have spoken with her more about these things that she could never ask her father, as indulgent as he had been.
She decides she must speak with Arthur. It is not yet that late, she will go to his chambers and confess her fears. He will draw her close and kiss her and smile at her in that simple, adoring way and assure her that there is nothing to worry about.
"Your majesty, is everything alright?" Lancelot asks as she steps outside her chambers. She is taken aback for a moment, not expecting it to be him on guard. Surely he has more important duties these days?
"Perfectly fine. I am only going for a walk."
"Will you permit me to accompany you?"
"Thank you, but I will be quite alright." She smiles at him, grateful for his familiar face, always there whenever she has need of him. She wonders whether he will keep guard, too, over their wedding chamber and flushes uncomfortably at the thought.
"Guinevere –" There is an odd, strained note to his voice and she looks quizzically at him. He shakes his head, dark mane flickering and falling forward to shadow his expression. "I wish you every happiness, my lady," he says, and she gets the curious feeling that it was not what he had meant to say. As always, he has a way of making the most platitudinous sentiments utterly sincere.
"Thank you," she returns, reaching across to press his hand with hers before she sets off in the direction of Arthur's chambers.
She pushes open the heavy oaken door and stops in the doorway, frowning at the sight that greets her. Arthur and Merlin are stood in an intimate embrace, foreheads pressed together.
"...any idea what I went through?" Arthur is saying. "I thought you were dead."
Gwen can't hear Merlin's reply, whispered against Arthur's temple, but whatever he says it makes Arthur shudder and bury his head against Merlin's shoulder. Merlin's arms wrap around him, hands running soothingly over Arthur's back. Gwen turns to go, ready to leave them to their reunion, when Arthur lifts his head and speaks once more,
"I can't – I won't lose you again," he says, eyes fierce with passion and she knows she has never once seen him look at her in that way.
"Arthur," Merlin says in a broken voice, looking back at him with helpless desire. And then they're kissing desperately and Gwen gasps, leaning back against the wall for support. She hadn't known – she'd known Arthur loved Merlin, of course, but she hadn't ever imagined his love was like this. She can't help but wonder whether they had always been lovers, making a fool of her and her misplaced affections, or whether this is a new development, a dam of denial and restraint bursting open in a flood of desire at their reunion.
It doesn't matter, she decides, either way they have betrayed her. Arthur, who was to have been her husband come noon the next day and Merlin who had always been one of her closest friends. This is the sort of betrayal that brings kingdoms to their knees. She feels shaken to the core, a low pain in her stomach. She stares at them as they kiss and clutch at one another, oblivious to everything else and her pain twists and turns to anger.
"What are you doing?" she demands furiously, stalking across the room towards them. They pull apart, shocked and dismayed, each of them trying to step forward and shield the other, as if she might challenge them to a duel or order their heads on a pike. It's that, more than anything else, that hurts – that they instinctively choose and stand by each other against her. That their connection is something deeper than mere affection and lust, something she has no hope of coming between. She feels she has been stupid and naive and she doesn't like it. Well, if they expect a fight, she'll give them a fight, she decides, and delivers a stinging slap to first Arthur's cheek and then Merlin's.
"Bastards," she hisses, and turns on her heel, ready to stalk out with as much queenly dignity as she can muster. Her queenly dignity is somewhat damaged by shrieking at a straying husband like a market fishwife, she knows, and she blames the two of them for that, too.
"Guinevere, wait, I..."
"I'm so sorry, Gwen, I tried not to, I really..."
When she turns around, deaf to their pleas, Lancelot is there in the doorway, unhappy but not surprised and it is the look on his face that breaks her. She pushes him aside as she staggers out to the battlements, gulping in fresh air. She ignores the guard asking if she's quite alright, hearing Lancelot dismiss him moments later.
"Gwen, I'm so sorry," Lancelot says, approaching gently as though she is a wounded animal who may lash out at any moment. He's probably not far wrong, she thinks, and hates that she's been reduced to this.
Gwen sighs. "You knew," she accuses. "You knew, and you didn't tell me."
"I knew they had strong feelings for one another," he says carefully and she knows that he's trying not to say 'you'd have to be blind not to notice', because clearly she has been blind to all of this. "Merlin often confided in me, before. I didn't know that Arthur would – that they would act on them."
"You should have told me," she says wearily, all the fight gone out of her. "I trusted you above all others."
There's silence for a long moment. Lancelot stands within touching distance, the night breeze lightly ruffling his hair.
"Forgive me," he says at last, "But why were you marrying Arthur if he was not the one you trusted above all others?"
He folds his lips in between his teeth as though wishing it unsaid the next moment. She looks out over the city, wrapped in darkness. She doesn't have an answer for him.
She returns to Arthur's room just as the grey light of dawn creeps over the windowsill. They are huddled together on the bed – clothed, thank goodness. Merlin's cheeks are wet with tears and Arthur is holding his hand. They spring guiltily apart when she steps in, taking a second to marvel that Arthur still hasn't learnt any lessons about keeping his doors locked.
"Don't say anything," she says, holding up one hand to forestall the inevitable slew of apologies and excuses. "Just leave. Leave Camelot. I can't look at either of you right now."
She turns and walks out before they can say anything and asks for breakfast to be sent to her room.
Lancelot knocks and enters as she is finishing off the last of the breakfast pastries she has treated herself to, looking as though he's had as little sleep as she has.
"They've left," he says, wisely not mentioning either name. There's only numbness where there should be relief. "Your majesty, the tournaments..."
"Will go ahead," Gwen says decisively. "We still have the position of Court Sorcerer to fill. The position of husband appears to be vacant as well," she adds, with bite, although they both know she's hardly about to auction herself off to whoever the champion might be. It's not exactly something she can avoid, speculation on why the announced wedding is now not taking place. She cringes as she imagines herself immortalised in bawdy comic verse by bards from here to the Western Isles, the Jilted Queen. It's not how she wants to be remembered.
The winner of the tourney is a rakish young ruffian named Gwaine, who isn't shy with his compliments as he escorts her to the not-wedding banquet. He makes her laugh, which is both unexpected and much needed, so while she quite definitely declines his proposals, she offers him a place as a knight.
The position of Court Sorcerer is filled by a young man by the name of Gilli. He reminds her of Merlin and she doesn't know whether she is aching more because of his and Arthur's betrayal, or simply for missing her friend, gone away again so quickly.
There is a distance, now, between her and Lancelot. He remains as her advisor and captain of her personal guard, but she no longer summons him to speak with her privately about his opinions or ask his advice and he no longer offers. He watches her with sad eyes when he thinks she's not looking.
They are busy, all of them. She tasks Geoffrey to deal with the influx of marriage proposals, there's a sense of satisfaction at seeing the tip of his nose turn red as he reads some of the more... flowery... of declarations. To all of them she orders a polite refusal.
A stranger brings news of a dragon egg and she aquiesces to Gaius's requests that the artefact be brought to Camelot for safe-keeping. Lancelot leads a band of knights to retrieve it and they return without incident. The thud in her heart when she sees him ride into the courtyard is relief and satisfaction at a precious artefact being secured for future generations, or so she tells herself.
Despite Gaius's best efforts, there's nothing to be done with the egg. It will only hatch at the command of a Dragonlord. Nobody knows where Merlin and Arthur have fled to, or whether they will return. The quiet egg mocks her from the table, a living symbol of potential unfulfilled.
When Lancelot knocks on the door of her chambers with reports of a missing map and a traitor in their midst Gwen hesitates. She does not want to be quick to suspect and blame just because she has been betrayed once before. She will not be that kind of queen. The evidence is overwhelming, however, and she calls Helios to demand his excuses. He gives her weasel words and protestations of familial love and loyalty. Family he may be but family can break promises and there is not a man in Camelot whose word she trusts above Lancelot's. She dismisses Helios and banishes him. He is not the first but she hopes he will be the last. She does not want to be the kind of queen who banishes all those who disappoint her, either.
"You would take the word of some upstart half-foreign Duke who warms your bed above that of your own uncle," Helios spits as he leaves. Gwen stares him down unflinchingly until he departs, whipping his horse unnecessarily.
She knows there are some who question her reliance on Lancelot. She knows she can't please all of the people all of the time. But he has earned that trust and she knows it is not undeserved. It is the other part of his statement that makes her gut churn with heat and embarrassment, the insinuation that Lancelot shares her bed. In the first place, because it is untrue, and she dislikes that she must be assumed to be sharing her favours with her advisors. In the second place, because it is Lancelot, and things have never been like that between them.
Once the seed of the idea is planted, though, it takes root and flourishes rapidly. She can't help but wonder, even if it is for just a moment, what it would be like if Lancelot was warming her bed. She feels a prickle of heat that is more than mere embarrassment at the idea. His arms around her, always so strong and comforting, his chest pressed against hers. His eyes, by turns serious and sparkling with mirth, looking only at her, their customary warmth turned into something with more heat. The image and the sensations it produces are so strong she dare not look Lancelot in the eye for a week.
She's heard the whispers which name her Ice Queen, the queen with a frozen heart. While it's better than being known for a jilt, it irks her, for she has hardly shut herself up in her chambers mourning the loss of Arthur's affections. For a long time she has been heartsore – not heartless. And rather than throw herself into a loveless tactical marriage, aslthough she's had every opportunity, she has given her heart to her people. She can't help feeling a little isolated, sometimes, though. She has made it clear she does not need a man to rule her kingdom, but would it be so very wrong to want someone for herself? To be loved by one person as well as adored by her people?
Time and distance have helped her to see that Arthur's heart was never hers. And perhaps that hers was never his, not really. For all that she had loved him, she had always felt there were reserves between them. He hadn't truly understood her and she hadn't truly trusted him. And love without trust and understanding is nothing but a fancy, to be blown away by a passing breeze. And Arthur's love for Merlin, she sees now, was more of a hurricane; his tentative care for her never stood a chance.
She hadn't known, at the time, had been too close to know it for what it was. Lancelot had, though. Not for the first time she turns over his words to her on the battlements that night,
why were you marrying Arthur if he was not the one you trusted above all others?
But the more she thinks on them, the more the words turn around on themselves until she isn't wondering why she was planning to marry Arthur but why she wasn't planning to marry Lancelot.
It is as though scales fall from her eyes – huge, dragon-sized scales. She knows, now, why she turns first to Lancelot in times of crisis, why he is always there when she needs him. Why she feels impatient and listless when he is away and why her heart quickens when he returns. Why he has stayed by her side with such devotion, even when she gave him no reason to hope for a return of his affections. The utter sudden surety of it makes her catch her breath.
She has been blind indeed, but no longer.
The preparations for the Samhain feast are underway, the great hall decorated with mistletoe and ivy. Gwen stops to speak with the servants, to let them know they are doing a fantastic job and that she is very much looking forward to sharing the season's celebrations with them all. She makes her way to the chamber where she holds council with her advisors and takes a deep breath, steadying herself against the round stone table. The room is empty – she is early. The guard on the door has been instructed to let only one person inside before noon.
Lancelot enters with a frown.
"You sent for me?"
"Yes," Gwen tells him. "I've come to a decision, but I want your opinion on the matter before I put it to the council. Please, take a seat."
She sits herself, because he will not sit in her presence otherwise and she finds her legs will not allow her to stand still, pacing involuntarily through nerves.
"What is it?"
"I have decided to marry."
He flinches, almost imperceptibly, but she's looking for it, blind no longer to the way he attempts to conceal his feelings.
"That is," she continues, "I wish to marry. I am capable of ruling the kingdom alone. I hope I have proven that, this past year. But I do not wish to be always alone. I want to know love." She stops herself from looking into his eyes too soon. "The man I marry must be strong. He must be honest and trustworthy. He must love the people of Camelot and be willing to serve them. He must have proven his loyalty to me and to the kingdom a hundred times over, to be noble and self-sacrificing. He must be handsome, with dark eyes which light up when he smiles. And he must love me above all else."
Lancelot bites his lip. "I think your majesty will have to spend a long time looking for such a man."
"I don't," Gwen says, looking up at last. "I don't think I will have very far to look at all."
His head jerks up in surprise, and there is a tremble of uncertainty in the line of his lips.
"It has taken me a long time to see what has been there all along," Gwen says carefully. "I think you have long known my heart better than I have known it myself. I am yours, Lancelot." It seems an age, six torturous heartbeats before he replies.
"And I am yours."
He does not want her for her crown or her title. He does not want to rule or to conquer her but to love and to serve. She is not queen in this moment; right now they might be any two people, a knight errant and a blacksmith's daughter, perhaps, pledging their love in a lowly cottage.
Lancelot kisses her, warm and wet and honest. This is nothing like the few chaste kisses she shared with Arthur. This is true passion, melting and glorious. His hand curls around the back of her head pulling her closer, every touch of his fingers, every hitch of his breath protests his love so strongly she doesn't know how she could ever have mistaken it. Lancelot pulls back so only the tips of their noses are touching, their panted breaths mingling together, sweet and intimate.
"I need no vows from you, Lancelot." And she does not. What need does she have of words when long years of silent support and buried love have declared his devotion? She had not seen but now she does and his love shines so bright it's blinding.
He kisses her again until she's giddy with it, his arms about her waist, pulling her flush against him as they rise from their chairs as one. It's grounding and familiar and yet at the same time filled with such promise it sends sparks of heat dancing along her spine.
They are married within the week. If people whisper that it's because she doesn't wish to lose another husband, then it's their mistake. They have been too long apart and she doesn't want to waste another day. She is convinced well enough of Lancelot's love for her to laugh when she hears people joke that he might abscond with Gilli, stopping only when she sees how it embarrasses the young sorcerer, breaking his concentration as he attempts to fill the hall with decorative orbs of light.
Lancelot is crowned as they are joined in marriage, a wedding and coronation together; much less of a solemn occasion than the funeral-coronation of the year before. She would marry Lancelot in bare feet in a hovel, but the pomp and ceremony is necessary, a show to her people Lancelot's worth. They will never know it as she does and if the silks and silver and Gilli's lightshow help to convince them, then that is what they will have. But for her the only thing of significance is Lancelot's hand bound to her own.
She has commissioned a new sigil for the royal household in honour of their marriage, something to incorporate Lancelot's own shield. Geoffrey sweats over it in his library, muttering under his breath about precedents as he consults his books on geneaology and heraldry. She is insistent, though. They are nothing if they are not equal. Geoffrey emerges after seven days with a scroll, upon it the hand-drawn image of a hand holding a sword emerging from a lake. It gives Gwen the same feeling of rightness when she looks at it as she has when she first sees Lancelot with the silver circlet on his head.
When Lancelot enters her chamber in his shirtsleeves, looking at her with eyes which are not so much heated as smouldering, she knows the difference between doubts and wedding-night nerves. She has none of the former and the latter are soon soothed away by gentle kisses and a sweeping want the like of which she has never felt before. They join together with passion and tenderness and after he lies his head on her breast and she kisses his hair as he trembles in her arms.
Much like being crowned, being married changes everything and yet in some ways it does not. She has Lancelot's help and support and advice, but then again she has always had that. She has his love, yet she has long had that, too, although it is no longer concealed now, his adoration worn on his sleeve for everyone to see. She has his touch, under cover of night, the fire of his kisses, welcome and much longed for. Soon, too, she has a swelling roundness to her belly, their own sweet secret for the time being.
The proposals stop, or rather they take a more tactical and less romantic turn; trading land and soldiers and promises of aid with her neighbours is preferable than trading herself, and Camelot is soon allied on all sides, gathering a reputation for being the peace-keeper of the nations. While they are not and have no wish to be war-mongers, the knights are well trained, well fed, well armed, ready and willing to defend the land and it's queen against any attack, magical or military. To earn a place as one of Camelot's knights is a thing desired throughout the land. There is a school for sorcerers, too -- away from the keep, lest there are any magical mishaps -- with more students than Gaius and Gilli can handle between them.
Supplicants arrive daily, having heard of the Queen and her Consort's reputation for fairness and sympathy. Guinevere and Lancelot take turns at hearing petitions, but they take the time, too, to train magistrates from among the denizens of Camelot's towns, that the people might hear and judge their own disputes.
Not everyone is happy. There is an attack led by a former maid of Gwen's who thinks that those with magical talent ought to have power over those who do not The knights and their sorcerer counterparts teach her a quick sharp lesson that where power is shared and people are valued for the talents they have, they are a stronger force than any one man or woman seeking power.
As the months pass and her condition becomes more visible, Elyan arrives at the castle. She has always known he was her half-brother, remembers when she was six saying he could be king when he grew up instead, if he liked. He hadn't liked, though, preferring to travel to distant lands, and childhood squabble aside, there had never been any dispute over the throne or Gwen's right to ascend to it. Now she welcomes him in a tight embrace, smiling at his expressions of delight over her marriage and expectant state.
It is not so much a feast as a family dinner, the Queen and Consort and a few trusted knights, although she has pleaded with the cook for Elyan's favourites, pheasant and apricots. Elyan tells them of the strange lands and people he has encountered on his travels. Gwaine listens with something a little like wistfulness and she makes a mental note to send him on a quest away from the castle for a while to soothe his itchy feet.
"As big as a dragon," Elyan says of a beast he has supposedly slain, and she shakes her head in disbelief, used to his exaggeration. Percival, though, is hanging on his every word, and she wonders whether she will lose all her best knights to Elyan's brand of wanderlust. Her fears are allayed, a little, when Percival shakes his head at Elyan's description of the beches of the Western Isles and says that there is nowhere he'd rather be than Camelot, even as Elyan's eyes register a tinge of disappointment.
Elyan tells them, too, of a dark haired sorcerer and a fair haired knight, fellow travellers who helped to save him from an attack by wyverns.
"They said they knew Camelot," he says.
Gwen searches her heart and finds the sting of betrayal has faded quite away. She wonders what it would be like to have her friends home again.
After he has rested for the night and broken his fast, Gwen offers Elyan a home in the castle and a place among the knights, as she always does. This time he hesitates, looking over at where Percival is showing a young recruit the best way to swing a mace.
"I'll be home soon," he tells her, and she knows it for the truth – he has never called Camelot home before.
"The sorcerer and the knight," she says, pulling at his sleeve before he goes, "If you see them again, tell them – tell them they'd be welcome, too, if they wanted to come home."
"I will," he says, taking his leave with a puzzled frown at her words and a last glance over his shoulder at the Percival and the knights-in-training.
Camelot is becoming home to more and more people who have chosen it, not just been born to it. Tristan, a fugitive from the court of King Mark is given shelter and shows the makings of a fine knight. His companion Isolde, too, shows skill with a sword and Gwen asks her to teach the girls of the castle, from the young noble ladies to the washerwomen's daughters. Her father had made sure she knew how to handle a sword, and Gwen is resolved that no girl in Camelot shall be without the means to defend herself.
When petitioners from Cenred's kingdom complain of mistreatment, Gwen sends her armies to liberate them. Cenred falls and she brings his land under her protection, extending Camelot's borders to incorporate them, home now to more people. Expanding the kingdom like this is not without its problems, but they are her people now and she will fight for them, listen to them, care for them.
Gwen hadn't thought to ever see the equal of the joy and pride in Lancelot's eyes when he married her, but it is surpassed when he looks down at their newborn son. She and Lancelot have been mother and father to a growing kingdom for some time; she knows that between them they have the love and patience needed to raise a child, a prince, a future king. A weighty destiny for so small and wrinkled a person, she thinks as the baby, Galahad, wriggles and mewls in his father's arms. Lancelot helps her to her feet and the three of them look out as the sun rises across Camelot, bathing the castle, the town below and the distant forests in the pale golden glow of a new dawn.