The first time Belle met Queen Gwenhyfar was at the wedding. There was no denying she was lovely, and it was obvious King Leodegranz had named her well, she was fair and white as new fallen snow. It was also obvious that she and the newly crowned king were very much in love.
That was a great relief, for all the trouble they had caused in order that this marriage should happen. Arthur had angered Avalon quite a bit by rejecting their chosen bride in favour of the girl he'd been dallying with in the countryside. Apparently, he'd invaded her private hideaway during one of his regular trips incognito, learning the land. The gossip was that he'd all but run her down on horseback, and then done such a poor job apologizing that she'd climbed up an apple tree and pelted him with fruit until he begged her forgiveness. But how they had met meant little, what mattered was that Arthur had a bride already waiting for him.
After Uther died, and the new king had been retrieved from his fosterage and told who he was, his advisors had sent to Avalon for a bride. The Lady had sent a priestess trained princess, Abigail, who, as it turned out, was in attendance at the wedding. Lucky for all involved, she was gracious about it. She'd looked lovely as well, but then, all the guests were done up in their finest, this was the biggest event most of them would see in their lives.
The only exception Belle could spot was in the party and person of the Dowager Queen and Duchess of Cornwall, Lady Igraine. She was deep in mourning for Uther, likely would remain so all her life, and so was veiled in black. She was waited on by two women in the simple white robes of Avalon, and when Belle asked her father if he knew whom they were, she was quite surprised.
"Don't you know? Those are the King's half sisters, Elaine and Morgana verch Gorles." Belle was surprised, she knew, in theory, that Igraine had borne children to the Duke of Cornwall before his rebellion, but as High Queen, she had never been seen as a mother. It made sense, then, that they would be Avalon trained. Uther likely didn't want any evidence of his wife's previous husband.
"Papa, who is that with King Leodegranz and his wife?" The guest list was like a survey of everyone of import in the land, and Belle was struggling to keep it all straight in her mind.
"Lot of Orkney, and Anna Morgause."
"And Anna is the High King's.... aunt?" Brows furrowed. It was difficult, keeping up with all the relations, especially when you lived in the back end of nowhere and got your news late if at all.
"And Igraine's foster child." Belle looked up at the young woman who had spoken. It seemed she was the only other young lady looking to be presented as a candidate for the Queen's lady in waiting. Every other woman of age was either Avalon trained or already managing a household of her own. Belle's father had jumped at the opportunity, since Avalon's displeasure meant they weren't monopolizing the position.
"Ah, Isabel, this is Eleanor, King Pellinor's youngest."
Belle made her curtsy and smiled, offering a hand to the slight young blonde. "A pleasure to meet you, Eleanor."
Eleanor returned smile and handshake in kind. "Please, call me Ella, if we're both to become the Queen's ladies, there's no reason to be formal."
"Well then, Ella, you should feel free to call me Belle. Now, what was that you said about Anna Morgause?"
Ella ran through the tale in a whisper, because even as far back as they were, the ceremony was in process, and there was no cause to be rude. It seemed that Anna Morgause had been born shortly before Igraine gave birth to Morgana, her eldest child, and their mother had died of the childbirth fever not long after. Igraine had taken her sister to breast alongside her own infant, and raised the two as sisters. Apparently, the Duchess of Cornwall wasn't a very doting mother, especially after Gorles died and she wed Uther. She'd never once asked after Arthur in his fosterage, and he thought her all but a stranger, seeing Sir Ector and his wife as his true family.
Much closer were Gwenhyfar and her family, for all that Leodegranz was on his fourth wife, she seemed to care very much for the girl, and rumour had it she considered her a mother. Regina was barren, and had no hope for a child of her own, and Leodegranz only wanted a mother for his child. In fact, had the woman not been so painfully Roman and Christian, he would have been happy to be cuckolded, if it meant everyone was satisfied. As it was, he wasn't a young man, and with Gwenhyfar married, chances were good that Regina would observe proper mourning on his passing, but remarry before long.
"And what about you, Belle? You're Sir Maurice's daughter, do you have any plans?"
Belle shook her head. "None. That, of course, is why this is such a good opportunity for me. I'd never get this kind of exposure back home. We're little more than a fishing village, after all."
"Oh, I know the feeling." Ella said, and then laughed at Belle's disbelieving look. "What you don't think I'm serious? I'm the youngest child, and even my elder sisters aren't considered prime marriage material. Here, if I'm lucky, I might catch the eye of one of the knights. Play my cards right, and I'll be a bride soon too."
Belle looked at her curiously, not certain what to make of this. "And that's what you want? To be a bride?"
"Oh, yes, ever so much!" Ella clapped her hands together, eyes shining with happiness. "Ever since I was little, falling in love, getting married, becoming a mother, it's been my dream. Don't you want it too?"
"Oh, love yes." She replied, but shrugged as she said it. "But a wife and mother? I've never thought love and marriage so inextricably bound. I don't know that it really matters to me. I mean, yes, I do want to fall in love, but it doesn't seem like something that can happen all at once." Belle tried to amend her words at the look Ella was giving her, but couldn't find a better phrasing. "I don't know, love should be slow, and wash over you so that you don't even know that it's happening, just one day you wake up and realize you can't bear the thought of not spending the rest of your life with this person."
Ella covered her smile with a hand, and Belle blushed, looking to see if she'd just said that in front of her father. Luckily for her, he'd wandered away as soon as he'd introduced the two, and was probably trying to get news from the south.
"It's amazing how many people turned out. How many priests are there up there? I can't even count them." Ella strained over the crowd of heads to make it out, and Belle took her own accounting. She could make out several figures, dressed in robes of various style, standing a bit apart. The Christian priests were identifiable by both the sombre black they wore and the disgust evident in the way they held themselves apart from the common ceremony in progress. Avalon's party, whose rites were being preformed first, wore brighter clothing, and included women, a fact which apparently offended the Church fathers of Rome.
"There's the Bishop, and I see at least two more Christians, and it looks like Avalon sent... In blue, that's the Lady of Avalon isn't it? I didn't think she'd attend."
"What, and let the Christians be better represented?" said Ella. "Look, the Merlin is there beside her, and they've each got a pair of attendants, by the looks of it."
Belle tried to make out the man beside the Lady, but he was dressed plainly in a soft forest green, and wasn't officiating, so it was impossible for her to see any features. Of course, seeing anything past the royal couple wasn't easy, their smiles enough to steal the attention from anyone. The way they held each other's hands, the world might have contained naught but they two. There was a collective rush of indrawn breath as the Lady drew water from the sacred well. This act was the reason they had all tracked here, to this clearing miles from any town, and would be all day returning to the castle for the feasting.
As the pair drank, each from the goblet the other held, the Lady laid her hands on their brows and proclaimed them wed. A great cheer went up as they embraced, and many of the guests dispersed, not intending to stay for the Mass and ceremony the Bishop would be holding at the church. For the common folk, this was all the ritual anyone needed. Ella and Belle, however, knew they had to attend, and at the least remain respectful, so they clasped hands then returned to their fathers.
It was some time filing the party into the church, and most people had been up since well before dawn travelling to the well-site, so those nobles who were granted entry seemed not far from nodding off where the knelt.
Belle noticed that the Lady of Avalon was nowhere in sight, but the Merlin stood by Arthur, leaning heavily on his staff, though refusing to kneel. It was said Uther Pendragon himself never bent knee at Mass. Arthur, perhaps in regards to his bride's upbringing, knelt beside her.
As Masses go, Belle found it long, but not onerous. She had plenty of time to let her thoughts wander, and the Bishop had a strong, pleasing voice. There was some mumbles and groaning from the assembled, and at one point she had seen Anna Morgause sharply elbow her husband when Lot had dozed off. He probably wasn't the only one sleeping, but likely the only one with a wife who would publically abuse him. By the time it was over, she did feel somewhat stiff, and the exhaustion of travel had never quite worn off. She fought off the urge to yawn as they made their way back to the castle, and slowly worked down the line of guests. Finally, they reached the royal couple. Her father made his introduction, gave his well wishes, and gestured to Belle to step forward.
"Your Majesties." Her father bowed, and Belle dropped a low curtsy, spreading her skirts. "My daughter, Isabel. I would be most gratified if you would accept her as one of your ladies in waiting, my Queen."
Gwenhyfar reached out a hand. "Rise, Isabelle." She did so, feeling her heart race as she looked up into the smiling face of the Queen.
"Your Majesty." She replied quietly, daring to think she might actually be interested, a queen, interested in a lowly lady like herself.
"Isabel, you would to join my household?" Obviously, this was a formality, but the fact Belle was being asked her opinion in the matter was still enough to endear the woman to her.
"Yes, your majesty."
"You are aware that Avalon is rather cool regarding this match? I won't be having a swarm of ladies, so the work will be more than it might be in other households."
"I understand. There was another young lady I spoke to earlier, Eleanor? She seemed quite eager. Is she likely to join me?"
Gwenhyfar smiled again, and the room seemed to light with it. "Ella has already spoken to me, yes."
"Well then, in such company, shared tasks will be no hardship." Belle bobbed another curtsy. "I thank you for your acceptance, My Queen-"
"Oh, no need to stand on formality. If I may call you Belle, please know me as Gwen. We'll be spending enough time together to be as sisters, after all."
Belle felt the colour rise, to be treated so highly by the queen, and only having just met her. "I've monopolised you for long enough, my qu- Gwen." She stumbled over the name, but recovered swiftly. "I beg your leave, before the other guests become cross with me. Your majesties."
Arthur made a gesture of approval and Belle all but skipped to the banquet tables. She'd been accepted into the household of the Queen of all Britain. No more would she be spending months waiting the latest messenger with news that would be half a year old by the time she received it. If the Saxons raided, it would be far from her, so she wouldn't have to be bundled up and ready to flee at a moment's notice.
And she would have companions who weren't lowborn maids deferring to her every judgement. Intelligent conversation, debate, palace gossip, the avenues that had opened for her were endless.
"Oh, Papa, she really accepted me! I'm going to live here in the centre of everything."
"I knew you would, my gel. You've always been bright enough that you were wasted on our little village. Here you'll get the recognition you deserve." Belle gave her father a tight hug, spotted Ella nearby with the princess Abigail and Anna Morgause, and made her way to join them.
"Belle! I heard Gwen accepted you, this is going to be wonderful."
What followed was a stream of gossip and promises and hushed commentary about the men present. Abigail had her eye on a knight who was talking to Arthur's foster brother and seneschal, Cai, who Anna Morgause made no pretence of hiding her attraction to. That she was married, with two children at that, didn't seem to matter.
"Lot doesn't care, he's a womaniser himself. So why should I not look?"
Belle blushed at that, and Ella giggled. "Save some for the rest of us, your majesty."
"What about you, Belle?" Abigail asked, watching with a sly look. That was Avalon's influence, she was sure. Something about the way she observed everything at once, never seeming to be surprised by anything, was distinctly unnerving. It made her speculate if Abigail's intended role was as much spy as it was influence over the High King, and no wonder Avalon would be angry to lose such a valuable connection.
They were looking at her, now, and Belle hastily ran the conversation back. Who did she find attractive? "Oh, I don't know, I think there's plenty more important than a pretty face."
Morgause smiled like a snake. "Oh yes, you can't deny the importance of having a large-"
"ANNA!" Abigail scolded, laughing.
The queen of Orkney pretended to look offended at that. "I was going to say inheritance, miss I-just-narrowly-avoided-marrying-a-sheepherder."
The bickering over that comment would have to wait, the high table was toasting, and the Lady of Avalon was speaking. The hush took a while to reach their little pocket, but Belle could hear well enough.
"And having overcome their trials, Avalon gives her blessing to the newlyweds, and pledges that so long as they do not turn their backs on her, she will never again desert them."
Beside her, the Merlin rose. "Avalon never deserted these two, bound as they were in love. Her Lady may have, but the Lady, powerful though she may be, is not all of Avalon. As I stood by these children against the forces that would keep them apart, so I will continue. To Arthur and his fair Gwen!"
As many went to drink, the Lady interrupted. "And of course, with our Merlin to guide them, what more could they ask for in an advisor? Who better to steer them from folly than one who has seen every evil in this world. To Arthur and his dear queen, long may they reign in wisdom and peace!"
There was a slight sense of unease to the toasting that followed, and both King and Queen favoured the party of Avalon with looks of disapproval. This was supposed to be a wedding, not a place for Avalon's heads to try to one up each other.
Thankfully, Leodegranz's queen had a better way with words. "Gwen, dear Gwenhyfar. Though I know I've no right to claim the place of your departed mother, you've granted it to me unasked. When I despaired of ever having children, God himself brought you to me, and you've been everything I could hope for in a daughter. I can only wish you the greatest of happiness with your true love. You found each other, despite everything that might keep you apart. When you asked me for advice, I told you then, and say it now, have faith in love. And I hope that when you yourself become a mother, some of the lessons I imparted on you will be passed on." Tears shone in her eyes as she spoke. "Arthur. Love and cherish the daughter of my heart, as I know she does you. Because if you don't," And here her tone went cold, and dangerous. "Then Heaven itself will not save you from my wrath."
It was impossible to say where the applause started, but Belle felt her hands grow numb before it ended.
It was several months before Belle was settled into Camelot proper, the royal couple needed time for a proper honeymoon, and then travel time from her father's lands, all in all the better part of a season had passed before anything like a routine had been settled on.
When the men were home, it was a lovely chaos. Banquets were held, horses raced, harps played. Nothing could be more pleasant than for everyone to be together, especially when Gwen and Arthur were reunited after a skirmish.
She and Ella would wait beside the pacing queen for any news, watching the horizon for messengers. They would always break off their needlework on the days Arthur was expected to return, because Gwen was so distracted that her fingers suffered. One day in midsummer, the waiting had taken its toll on everyone.
"The way you work, we should dye all your projects red." Belle teased as the lovely young monarch let out a string of curses that would make a stable-hand blush. She passed the gown that was now stained with pinpricks of blood to Ella, who added it to the pile of unfinished garments while Belle dug out the salve to stop the bleeding. The woman bled like a stuck pig at the slightest scratch.
"Gwen, you know he's never injured in battle. You lose more blood to the devils of embroidery than the Saxons ever draw from Arthur."
Gwenhyfar sighed, but admitted the truth. "I know, you're both right, but, every time he leaves, I feel like it's forever. You two aren't in love yet, you can't imagine how fragile a thing it is."
Belle cast a sidelong glance at Ella, and grinned at what she saw. "You may be right that I'm not in love, but look to yon daydreamer." She said in a loud whisper, gesturing with her chin.
Eleanor had the same look of longing that the court was used to seeing on their queen. She'd been mooning about in secret for at least a month now, and this was the first time Belle had a chance to call her out on it in front of Gwen. It didn't take a priestess to see a woman besotted, and a distraction was just what the queen needed.
Gwen studied the youngest of their trio, and broke into a smile. "Ella, you didn't tell me you'd found someone! Who is he, I'll make the arrangements, just tell me who he is."
Ella was bright red, and unsure, and Belle felt only slightly guilty for bringing it up. This would give Gwen something to do besides mope, and perhaps leave off the matchmaking.
In the months they'd spent together, Belle had come to enjoy the company of the other ladies, even more when there were others in residence. Gwen's stepmother Regina was a regular guest, and always made things cosy. Anna-Morgause would tease, and her young son would beg for someone to play soldiers with him. Having the precocious lad around lightened everyone's spirits, and Gwen got on so well with him, Anna joked she might get jealous someone would steal her boy away. Of course, they were family, and Elaine and Morgana spent little time in court, and then as representatives of Avalon or escorting their mother. Morgause said that Igraine would probably leave Tintagel to Morgana, and Elaine would go to Avalon to serve, so it was really no surprise they cared little for the court of their half-brother.
It bothered Arthur that Avalon refused to send any of their maidens, and he said as much whenever it came up. Never, of course, in the hearing of Regina, for as loving a stepmother as she was, she was also too devout a Christian to think the people of the Isle anything but servants of the devil.
Times like those Isabel had to bite her tongue. Her own mother had been Avalon trained, and it was only her taking ill that kept her from sending Belle to follow her example. And certainly she had Avalon to thank for Gwen's happiness, hadn't the Merlin himself played messenger and negotiator to ensure that Princess Abigail was appeased? It was known he was the one that saw to it that Leodegranz didn't make enormous demands before granting his daughter's hand, or worse, send her to a nunnery for her supposed promiscuity. From what she heard, he'd done everything short of put the rings in their hands.
But one thing was constant, no matter who was joining them. Gwen loved to match-make. Not a dinner went by that she didn't carefully choose seating arrangements, and Belle was certain she'd learned more about every one of Arthur's Companions than anyone could be expected to remember.
Thankfully, if Ella had found someone, then Gwenhyfar would be distracted for the time being. Also, Belle wasn't ashamed to admit, the shrieking and giggling was fun. She'd never had sisters, nor had Gwenhyfar, so the camaraderie they developed was a new and very much welcome thing in their lives. Even Ella, who had a gaggle of siblings, seemed surprised at the ease of manner that had descended on them after the first week of stumbling tongues and misused titles. Now, none of them used full names in private.
"Gwen, I don't even know if he knows I exist! Belle, why would you tell her that?" Belle responded by laughing and pelting Ella with a handful of ribbons.
"Because the last thing we need is two moping ladies, and I'm tired of being set up every time we have a new dinner guest."
Ella nodded sagely. "Ah, you don't want to be tied down. You want to have your run of the men, like Anna in Orkney"
The shrieking resumed, and by the time Gwen had held Ella to a cushion and tickled the name of the gentleman she had her eye on out of her, the room was a mess of embroidery, baskets, and discarded jewellery and hair-pins.
"Stop, stop! Mercy, have mercy! It's Thomas, it's Thomas, I give, I give in." The delighted laughter that filled the room must have finally given courage to the servant standing in the doorway.
"Your Majesty, cook has a few questions about the banquet tonight, if you would...?"
Gwen glanced anxiously at her ladies, and Belle waved her off. "Go, go, I'll clean up here, and help Ella make herself lovely for her suitor." She grinned and silenced the young blonde's protests, knowing Gwen would be planning the wedding that very night, given the chance.
It wasn't that night, but once Gwenhyfar set her mind on something, wild horses couldn't keep her from carrying it out. By late winter, Eleanor and her Thomas were married. Though nothing could compare to the wedding of Arthur and Gwenhyfar, it was a masterfully crafted piece of work, a crisp white backdrop, with the bride dressed in golds, shining like the sun itself. Isabel felt a bit out of place in the crowd of women around Ella, all of them wives or soon to become so. Joining the Avalon party wasn't a much better option, but Belle had always wondered about the place her mother had spent so much time in, and had loved so well she requested burial on the isle.
It was a small group of priestesses, and Belle ventured over with some hesitation. They looked on her with that same cool disinterest that had unnerved her about Abigail the few times she had met the princess.
"Good evening, ladies. Are you enjoying yourselves?" There was a hasty exchange of glances before one of them spoke up.
"You serve the Christian Queen, why are you speaking to us?" Belle was taken aback by the tone. The priestess expected hostility from Gwen? Over her religion? That didn't make any sense; it was Avalon that had rejected the queen, not the other way around.
"Her Majesty is a Christian, yes, but she feels that all the world is a gift from God, and sacred. Isn't that in line with your own teachings?"
"Oh, what do you know about Avalon's teachings? I see no crescent on your brow."
Belle felt her face burn at the mockery. The blue crescent tattooed upon the brow of every Avalon trained priestess was a symbol that drew great respect and awe. Her own mother had worn it, and often enough as a young child Belle had imagined having one herself, drawn it in bits of paint and looked at herself in the mirror in secret. "No, I bear no crescent. All I have on my brow is the memory of my mother's kiss. But she taught me as much of Avalon as she could before she passed away, and was laid to rest on her shores."
There was a moment of whispers as they recalled the priestess who had been Isabel's mother. The group's hesitancy vanished, and they seemed to accept her as a lost daughter of Avalon, begging to know how the court was run. They had been fed so many lies about Gwenhyfar that she was the better part of an hour correcting them. No, they didn't spend an hour in Mass every morning, no she wasn't required to attend services even when ill, and no, there was certainly no forbidding of women singing and dancing.
"But then why only accept Christians for her companions?" one of them asked. "We were told Arthur and Gwenhyfar forbid Avalon to send anyone to join their household."
Belle felt so confused, but finally was able to understand what had happened. "Arthur never said he wouldn't let Avalon send her daughters, he only said he wouldn't have anyone, Avalon included, trying to control his and Gwen's court. I think what he said was "I'll not have Avalon's spies and manipulators at the heart of our country." But that certainly doesn't mean all of you! Gwen often laments the lack of a priestess in our midst. Certainly none of us have enough knowledge of herbs, and we never know when the queen might get with child."
The hushed murmuring started up again, and the priestesses made hasty apologies, before sweeping out, leaving Belle more confused than ever, and still out of place.
Whatever Belle had said, or maybe something else that had been seen that night, Avalon seemed to be friendlier after Eleanor and Thomas' wedding.
While there hadn't been any priestess sent yet, about a half dozen of the small dark tribesmen of the old race had come. They had appointed themselves as the personal bodyguards to the queen, and improved the atmosphere significantly.
They were learning to hunt, and Belle was stunned to discover Gwen didn't ride very well, so their trips were never too far from the castle. Even so, the time out of door agreed with them, and their queen had amazed them by being a charmer of animals, especially birds. One of the tribesmen, Belle had a horrible time telling them apart by anything other than voices, had seen this and said he'd make the arrangements for a mews to be built. As falconry was among the acceptable pursuits for a lady, even Regina could find no fault in it, though she did make plenty of remarks on their wardrobes for the hunt.
"Really, Gwen, you have such fine riding garments, why not hunt in those?"
"Because, Mama, they are blue. I have to blend in to the scenery if I don't want to spook the game."
The argument, of course, was bound to be fruitless, but Gwen hated to fight with her stepmother, even over the tiniest of things.
"Regina, we are working on making new riding clothes in green." Belle reminded her, helping Gwen pull some twigs from her hair. They'd come straight from an outing, and hadn't even had time to change before receiving Regina. Ella had run to the kitchens to drop off their game bags, and then they were to wash down before supper. "We had to send to Avalon for advice in the dyeing. I've never done anything but blues and reds, and Gwen says she's only done red, so we need all the help we can get."
Regina frowned at the mention of Avalon, but sighed. "I have to give those witches their due; they know herb-craft better than any other. If they only would give up those heathen rituals, I might be able to spend time around them without feeling unclean."
Gwenhyfar shook her head. "Mama, you really must remember, the common folk need the rituals. They need their sacred wells and stones. The magic of Avalon gives them proof, because they are not ready for faith alone."
Religion was still a sore spot between Regina and Arthur, and much as Gwen tried to be peacemaker, Belle was certain she would always cross herself in the presence of Avalon's faithful. Belle had kept her own agnosticism quiet; the small magics used by her mother had always seemed one part herb-lore and two parts mental trickery. It would take something more than that before she would consider any kind of worship.
"...girls giving themselves to strangers? Gwenhyfar, you have to prevail on Arthur to have the fires stopped. It's all well and good for people to seek out love, but you have to draw the line at coupling in the fields like beasts!"
"Are they on this again?" Ella whispered, having returned mid conversation.
"Sadly, they are, why don't we get a bath ready, Regina will have to let Gwen go to clean up."
Ella nodded and Belle gladly left the debate behind, going to lay out clothes for the three of them while Ella drew the water. Best not to get in the way of family squabbles.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The arguments about Avalon came to an end when Arthur finally put his foot down. It was rare that Isabel talked to the king, though they got on well enough. So when Gwen dragged him into their workroom with a grin on her face, there were two thoughts that were going through her mind. The first was that the queen might be with child, which would make two breeding women, as Ella had tentatively announced herself to be expecting. The second was that she'd stabbed herself on the drop spindle and was in a terrible amount of pain.
"Belle you won't believe what has happened! Tell her, Arthur, tell her!" Gwen was clinging to his arm and looking up at him eagerly, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Belle bit her lip and grabbed a scrap of cloth to deal with her shock-inflicted injury.
"Well, your majesty, I think you better tell me before your lady wife explodes."
Arthur patted his wife's hand and smiled. "I've just gotten news from Avalon. The Merlin has agreed that on his next visit to court, he will be bringing a priestess to join you. They should be leaving within the fortnight."
The relief that washed over Belle was due in equal parts to the addition of another lady, and the fact Gwen wasn't with child. While an heir to the throne would be wonderful, Belle just wasn't sure she was ready for it. Ella had already all but lost her mind in preparation, and it was contagious. Even when she was bursting into tears, Ella seemed to glow with pride. Belle didn't think the castle would survive two at once.
"That's wonderful! So, we can expect them, what, in two months? Ah this will be great, Gwen, can I go tell Ella, oh gods this means we'll have a priestess here-"
"- for the baby I know!" Gwenhyfar planted a kiss on Arthur's cheek and spun him around. "Thank you so much, darling, I know you're having trouble with Avalon but that you did this for me, it means so much."
"For us, Gwen, I did it for us."
The way he held her, Belle felt the creeping envy begin. Oh, she was very happy here, and had learned so much about how her country was run, because Arthur wouldn't hear of denying his wife a place in the governing. And when Gwen went, so did her ladies. So when Elaine and Morgana would come with a message from Avalon about how some bard or other wanted an account of a battle, and Arthur was made angry by the wording of some of their tale, Belle saw it. She was made very much aware how much Avalon seemed to want to change the 'official' story of Arthur's crowning, purportedly to make it easier for the bards to make into song. But along with learning about the governing first hand, Belle saw love, true love, everywhere she looked. It wasn't that she didn't think she would find it, one day, but watching all the happy couples, and really, when Abigail and her knight Fredrick arrived, it was painful for her to watch, it made her wish that one day could come sooner.
That night, Belle crawled into bed between two of the dairy maids. When the men were away, she'd share a large bed with Gwen and Ella, sharing the warmth and comfort. But now, Ella was with Thomas, Gwen with Arthur, and Belle could not sleep alone. She'd never been able to, and hadn't needed to for the most part, so when wives went to their husbands, Belle wanted nothing to do with an empty bed. No one begrudged her it, and the maids were glad to get a chance to sleep in the fine bed. And really, anything was better than the alternative. Belle had heard the stories too many times as a young girl. Her village was raided often enough that no woman slept unguarded. Too many times, women had been snatched from their beds, to become playthings for the Saxon beasts. Beaten and raped, their legs shattered so they couldn't run away, these weren’t stories told to frighten children into behaving. These were the tales barely whispered by the old women, hunched and scarred, of what had happened to their sisters and daughters. One of the things that Belle had run crying to her mother about was why the gods would let something like this happen. She begged her mother to use her magic to make it stop.
Learning her mother wasn't all powerful was a blow that echoed in her nightmares, long after the woman died.
"I'm sorry, Belle, love, magic cannot solve all the world's problems, and all my magic can do is to make it harder for the raiders to land on our shores." Her mother had stroked her hair and held the young girl close, kissing away the tears.
"But if magic cannot stop them, what good is it? What use is it having power if you can't save the people you love?"
Her mother had had no real answer for that, because she had often wondered the same thing in the course of her training. "We just do the best we can, with what we have. That's all anyone can do, darling."
No matter what her mother told her, Belle still woke in the night in a cold sweat if ever she had to sleep alone. Without the comfort of another body beside her, the night's terrors were more than she could take, even now she was fully grown. So when she would otherwise be alone, she'd bring in the maids, and everyone would be the happier for it. Perhaps it was an odd quirk, but if anyone thought less of her for it, the words had never made it back to Belle.
So she slept peacefully, happy in the knowledge that soon she'd be joined by a priestess of Avalon, and maybe she would know a cure for the night terrors.
In Avalon, there was a great row going on between the two heads of the sacred isle's mysteries.
The Lady of Avalon and the Merlin of Britain were squaring off, their words crackling with electricity, every insult like a bolt of lightning. Quite rightly, the Druids and Priestesses had made themselves scarce, so only the pair on the lakeshore could be seen by the light of the fires. Fires, and magic. Were they less well trained and respected, they would have pounced on each other like a pair of cats. It was only great restraint that kept them battering each other with force instead of biting and pulling hair.
"She needs more training! You can't take her away like this!" The Lady's will took him in the stomach, and forced the Merlin to lean on his staff.
"What training the lass needs she won't get with you looming over her shoulder. You coddle her, Seren, and what's worse you expect so much greatness from her, she fails in her tasks out of sheer nervousness." His retaliation tore loose the Lady's hair and splattered mud on her robes.
"Oh, I expect you know a lot about coddling, about treating a child like they're made of glass."A thunderclap sounded, and somewhere a tree burst into flames from where the Merlin deflected her bolt.
"Don't you make this about me, you sanctimonious bitch, this is about your pet priestess and how she needs freedom. She'll learn all the better at Camelot, and I'm taking her, will ye or no."
Seren, the Lady of Avalon, glared at the Merlin and opened her mouth to shout back an insult, then thought better of it. They'd already lit the night sky with their words, and she had a much better way to silence him. "Take Nova if you wish, but no matter how many girls you take away from me, it won't bring him back."
The isle shook with the power of the Merlin, and as he stormed off, the Lady's smug look faded. "I really am sorry about that Roderick, but your petty revenge isn't going to undo the vows we all made." It was too soft to hear, and anyway he was already long gone. But she still felt great sorrow for the man, and her ageless face shone with tears she slowly wiped away with the sleeve of her blue robe.
It was a month from the revelation that a priestess would be joining them. Gwen was restless, and Belle had decided now was as good a time as any to teach her how to ride properly.
"Gwen, you need to stop making those noises, you're scaring the horse."
"Scaring the horse? GOOD! That makes two of us. I hate riding, Regina can ride, I can barely stay on the damned thing." Gwenhyfar had gone from restless to hysterical. Eleanor and Isabelle were trying to hold the horse still.
"Well your majesty, it looks like someone will have to write your mother to give you some lessons." Belle muttered, finally getting the horse under control and pulling Gwen from the saddle.
"Oh, so it's 'your majesty' is it?" Gwen looked almost offended at the formality.
"Yes, Gwenhyfar verch Leodegranz, Queen of Britain. Your Majesty. You are a queen. Ella is a princess, and I only merit 'lady' as a courtesy title at the best. You need to get yourself together, losing your gods bedamned mind over a horse, really."
Something broke then, and Gwen was overcome with laughter. Contagious laughter, of the kind Belle didn't even try to fight.
"Oh, God, I've been so silly, haven't I Belle?"
The giggles descended and it looked like things had calmed down. They would stop for the day; wait for Regina to join them before picking up riding lessons again.
Belle and Ella were packing up the gear, winded from the laughter.
Then an errant bee stung the horse. Panicked, it kicked out and reared.
It caught Ella across the ribs.
Neither Gwen nor Belle saw that horse again, being too busy screaming in terror.
I must warn you, I am... not Ella's biggest fan. I'm sorry! I tried, I really did, but I can't like her. This isn't just being a Rum/Gold fangirl, she bothers me.
Wherein two lives are saved, and one is given in payment.
Gwen was praying.
Arthur was shouting.
Thomas was in tears.
The tribesmen were running about fast as lightning, doing all they could.
Ella was dying, and that much was obvious to everyone in Camelot.
Belle was walking the walls, doing the only thing she could do. As she had seen her mother do years ago, Belle was screaming at the universe. Ordering it to do as she said. She didn't know what good it would do, but the need to shout was overpowering. So she did. She yelled out to whatever forces could hear her, and let her anger and desperation strengthen her voice.
"This is not a universe wherein Ella dies. I won't have it! Someone is going to come over that hill to save her, and it is going to happen. Right. Now."
Belle had not been a believer in magic, had not been a faithful servant of any god. But when two figures crested the hill, riding as if pursued by demons, she didn't know who she was praising, just that she was thanking everything.
She'd barely managed to scramble to the ground before the two reached the castle gate, a young woman and an older man. The pair dismounted with uncanny haste, though the man leaned heavily on a carven staff.
"Where is she?" he barked, the simple green robes of a Druid giving his identity away even as the young woman's crescent mark did her own.
Belle was too worried to even think, and led the way to the room where Ella was being tended. The Merlin took charge immediately, the priestess hovering at his side.
"Husbands out, now. Nova, get brewing, you, and you" he pointed to two of the tribesmen at random. "Help her."
Ella was pale as death and shaking. They had cut away her clothing to see the wound, mostly blunt trauma, and she'd struck her head when she fell, but everyone was certain she would lose the child. The Merlin shook his head at the purpling stomach, and Arthur pulled Thomas away with great effort. Gwen was still knelt at the bedside, fervently murmuring prayer after prayer.
"Who was with her?" Gwen looked like she might choke on her words when he asked that, so Belle spoke up.
"I was. So was the queen, but I was right there, what can I do to help?"
"You want to do something? Well the gods can have their joke, someone taking initiative. Will she allow herself to live if she loses the child? I'm not healing a woman at great cost to myself only to have her waste away over the loss of a babe."
Belle didn't know what to expect, but this response wasn't it. "You can save her?"
"The mother, yes. I've already gotten her stable. The child, it'll cost someone besides me greatly to even stand a chance." The old Druid was sizing them up. "Will one of you offer your strength to the healing? Power has to come from somewhere, you see. Nothing ever comes for free."
Isabel and Gwenhyfar had spoken in unison, and before another word could be said, Belle stood.
"No, Gwen, you are the queen and I am no one, it has to be me." Both women had tears in their eyes as they looked on their friend, unconscious, breathing laboured, bruised all over.
"Whoever it is, get over here now, I don't have the power to keep them in stasis forever, and if she dies, I'll be drained for nothing, and then you'll all pay for it."
That settled it; Belle was at his side almost before he finished speaking. "What do I do?"
Confused, she looked at his face, and saw both cunning and worry there.
"Give me your right hand, put your left on her stomach. Good. Now close your eyes and tell the babe to take what it needs to live." Belle complied, feeling a strange sort of warmth fill her when she took the Druid's hand. She opened her mouth to speak and was cut off. "Not with your mouth, girl, with your heart."
As she did so, the warmth flowed from one arm to the other, circling her heart, which gave an odd flutter.
"Now, just keep letting the energy flow, and we'll know it's done when either one or both of us loses consciousness, or she wakes up."
Gwen's hysterical voice was muffled to Belle's hearing. "Loses consciousness? Why would ... happen ... do to... Belle?"
"Because, dearie, we're giving of ourselves to heal her." Why was his voice so clear, when everything else was fading? Belle tried to will more energy to the child, knowing if Ella lost her baby, nothing would ever be the same.
Suddenly, it was as if she'd sipped fire, the warmth coursing through her body joined with a searing heat from her middle, and Belle could have sworn she felt Ella and the child begin to move beneath her fingers.
That was the last thing she knew, before the darkness behind her eyes became absolute, and she slumped into the arms of the Merlin, unconscious.
Belle's sleep was uneasy, full of half heard conversations and unfamiliar scents, and proper sleep didn't claim her until after she had felt herself carried somewhere and gently tucked into a warm bed. When Belle woke, there was a strange sensation around her, as if she was being wrapped tightly in blankets and rocked. As she came more fully awake, it dulled, but remained at the back of her mind.
She was in the queen's room, in the big bed, and one of the tribesmen was at her side. He ran from the room when he realised she was awake, and returned a moment later with Gwenhyfar and Arthur.
Gwen's eyes were red and puffy from crying, but there was a cautious smile on her face. "You did it, Belle! Nova, that's the priestess who came with the Merlin, she says both Ella and the child should be fine, that she'd never seen a healing go so well before."
Relief made her heart swell. She'd done it. She'd saved Ella and her baby. Daughter. Somehow, Belle knew it was a girl now, maybe the result of the healing.
"The Merlin, where is he?"
Arthur cleared his throat. "Still sleeping. He wouldn't rest until he'd made sure everything was settled and Nova had administered tonic to Ella."
"Oh, that's fine, then. I had wanted to thank him, but you must have done so already."
Gwen made a nervous sound and rubbed at her eye. "Belle, how much do you remember of yesterday?" She enquired softly, peering at her face in a manner that Belle had seen her use on frightened birds
"Ella... the accident... and then I was on the wall when the Druid and Priestess rode up." Belle felt as though her head was full of wool, trudging through the memories. "And he said he couldn't save them both without help, and I took his hand... then it was like a fire kindled in me." Her head swam, and Belle was forced to lie back down in the pile of pillows. "What happened, Gwen?"
Arthur made to leave, but Gwenhyfar clutched his hand and pulled him back. "I need you here for this, please."
Belle hadn't been worried before, but now the same panic that had overtaken her at seeing Ella's prone form returned. "For what, Gwen?"
"You healed the baby yourself, Belle. It wasn't the Merlin who did it, you did. But you aren't trained and something happened and-" Gwen's voice caught, and she looked helplessly at her husband.
Arthur sat down on the bottom of the bed, appearing to be gathering his courage.
"I owe the Merlin a lot, Isabel. I don't deny it. But I may have to fight him over this. Magic isn't free, the power has to come from somewhere, and for the Druids it comes from the land and the people who care for it. He's said Avalon will claim a firstborn child as the price for the lives saved today."
"Ella's babe... no. I saved her, he can't take her away!"
Gwen's face was shining with tears, and she burrowed her face in Arthur's shoulder as he spoke.
"There's more. Nova says because of how you healed Ella's baby, you magically bound yourself to the child. You'll both feel echoes of what the other does, and that's a connection that a growing infant should only have with its mother."
Belle felt sick, her throat closing, stomach jumping, and then, even worse as the words sunk in further and the guilt of subjecting an unborn child to this crashed down on her.
"What do I do?"
"He's said that he'll take you away, break the bond before it can do harm but..."
The young priestess had entered the room with one of the tribesmen, who was looking at her with such reverence that were the situation less serious, Belle would suspect Gwen's matchmaking hand in it.
"A bond like that will reach out and re-connect to the nearest person. For the baby, that will be Princess Eleanor, but for you..."The priestess looked nervous and almost ashamed as she spoke. "The Lord Merlin will be able to dissolve it over time if it fixates on him. He's agreed to do it, but that means you'll spend time connected to him, in isolation. And then there's the matter of the price."
As she had before, Belle let the words come without thought. "I'll pay it. Whatever it is. Leave Ella's baby out of it, I'll pledge myself. I should have gone to Avalon, my mother was a priestess, and I'm her only child."
"Aye, I knew of the Priestess Sophia, imagine my surprise to find her daughter here, and with healer's hands, all untrained."
Arthur rose from where he sat at those words, and Gwen's fair skin paled even further.
"Merlin, shouldn't you still be abed?" He asked, as if he wasn't the king and couldn't order the man out.
"Psh, and let the New Girl explain to you how my own deals work? Not likely."
"My lord, I've been training for seven years now, why must you still call me that?" The priestess had reddened to the tips of her ears, and the tribesman beside her was giving such a look that lesser men would have shrunk from, though the Merlin paid no mind to it.
"I call you that because it's your name. Nova, it means New. Just as the Queen there is White and the gel in the bed is Beautiful."
Even knowing he was simply talking about her name, Belle felt her face heat at the implication.
"There's power in names, dearie, and for one such as myself there's no cause to risk invoking that power without need. I've expended enough power for now, and you're all lucky we arrived when we did. But a price must still be paid, and Avalon's terms are written so a firstborn child is always a suitable payment. So, you'll go, will you, Sophia's child? Good, you're a better choice than some infant that may not even have power. I can use a pair of hands to keep things in order, and if you're any good with the healer's trade, I can stop brewing and distilling myself. Help her pack, I expect to be off by sunrise next."
For a man who was obviously the eldest in the room, and who used a staff to walk, the Merlin of Britain was out of the room with a speed that led credence to the rumours he could will himself from place to place.
Arthur was the only one who remained in the room with Belle, Gwen saying somethign about checking on Ella.
"Isabel, you don't have to do this, we can find a way that won't have you serving that... well he's a great man, but he's also an ass."
Belle smiled at the awkward way of speaking the king had, he still had so much of the world he was fostered in clinging to his manner.
"I don't mind it, really, your majesty," She began to say, and was stopped.
"Please don't call me that," Arthur said, "My wife calls you her near-sister, and you've just saved a life, I'd knight you here and now if I didn't know you would refuse it. I think we're a bit beyond titles at the moment."
"It's not worth celebrating, sire, any friend would do the same. How could I let Ella down? She's been so thrilled about the baby. This is what she's dreamed of for years, being a mother. I couldn't let that dream die."
"But even so, you do not have to go with him, perhaps the Lady could-"
Belle shook her head. "The Lady didn't heal Ella's wounds from her own store of energy. The Merlin did. It is to him we are obligated, and I've already given my word. I'll leave with him on the morrow, it's already been decided. I know this is going to break Gwen's heart, but it isn't a deal with the devil, it is an honour."
Arthur merely stared at her. "You are not afraid?"
"Bravery, my king, is not the absence of fear, but rather the ability to overcome it." She bowed her head, and hoped he would understand and leave her to contemplate her future in peace.
Arthur made a few half-hearted attempts to speak again, but finally shook his head in bewilderment and left when the priestess, Nova, Belle needed to remember her name, entered with a hot mug of some broth.
"You don't need to be afraid of him, Isabel. He's irritable and often cross, and his tongue is sharp, but he is a wise man." Nova smiled a bit uncertainly. "The only thing is... he's had a falling out with the Lady, so, if you were hoping to go to Avalon. It... it just isn't going to happen."
Belle's face fell, she had so wanted to visit Avalon, she had only been to the sacred isle once, to see her mother laid to rest. "Oh. What... what happened?"
Nova shrugged. "I don't know, I only overheard a little. I was... kind of where I shouldn't have been. They've always been at odds, but this time it's gotten personal. The Lady thought I had so much potential, but I'm just a failure, and I'm glad he took me away from her before she saw that."
Belle sipped at the warm broth, head turned to the side. "Personal? Personal how?"
"The Lady has been like a mother to me, training me personally, but the Merlin has control where the King is concerned, since he did go to all that effort to help. So when the Merlin was picking who to send to Camelot, he picked me because it would upset Lady Seren. They had a great battle over it, throwing magic around; there are still scorch marks on the site. They disagree a lot on how the fade of magic..." Nova jumped, clasped a hand to her mouth. "I forget you are not Avalon trained. I shouldn't be telling you this. Forget I said anything about them falling out or anything like that. Just know you will be safe with the Lord Merlin, no matter where he rides. He'll take better care of you than he does himself, I have a feeling." Nova blushed. "But, ah, let's keep that between you and me, all right? My premonitions aren't always reliable, so I would rather not have it get out I've made a prediction."
"I'll speak of it to no one." Belle promised, handing back the now empty mug and feeling tired, probably there was something in the broth to help her recover. "Stay with me, please?" She yawned. "I don't want to be left alone."
Nova toed off her shoes and climbed onto the bed to sit beside Belle, who soon drifted off again. For the first time in many years, her sleep was dreamless.
Excuse the Merlin for making tasteless jokes. Or don't. He doesn't care.
When the Merlin said sunrise, he meant it. By the time the first rays of dawn had crept over the horizon, Belle was on horseback, the few items she'd needed fitting easily in a single bag, with plenty of room for her to carry provisions. She was still yawning as Gwen said her tearful goodbye, and had no idea what to expect when the Merlin started his horse into a trot, Belle hastily following on her own mare.
To say he set a gruelling pace would be unkind, the man simply knew exactly where he was going and had no need to stop and look around. At least trying to keep up meant that she never had a chance to get bored, but she certainly was going to be saddle sore, riding at this pace through the hidden paths and forgotten roads. About midday, they'd slowed to a walk, and finally stopped to rest at a river crossing. While the horses got their drink, Belle ventured her first question since leaving.
"Where are you taking me?" Yes, it probably wasn't the most polite question, but she did have a right to know.
"Immediately or ultimately?" Belle cocked her head to the side at the response.
"Immediately, I suppose, if they're different."
The Merlin sighed as if she had said something foolish, and Belle felt like a child in the company of adults. "You forget who I am, dearie. As messenger of the gods, I travel the land. But for now, we're going to a safehouse of mine. I need to get that bond of yours fixed to me as soon as possible. You'll only hurt the child if it's not broken soon."
That was all the hinting she needed, and they resumed the journey, stopping at a cottage well before sundown.
The cottage itself was hardly bigger than the stable that adjoined it. She set down her satchel on what passed for a bed and looked around. It didn't take much looking, the place didn't boast many features. One room, a hearth, a bench, a small stand with a basin for water, and a lumpy mattress wedged in the corner. There were scribblings on the walls, art drawn with fireplace ash, and Belle noticed words.
"Te somnia-" she began.
"Te somnia nostra reducunt," The Merlin finished for her. "Our dreams bring you back. Trite nonsense, whichever would-be-bard decided to write that up there... Silly child. Well, now, no need to waste any more time on that, we have to get that bond dealt with. Here," He tossed her a wineskin.
"What is this for?"
"Just drink it, you'll need it."
"I don't... I don't understand, why will I need it?"
"For the pain." At Belle's shocked expression, he elaborated. "The bond makes you feel echoes, remember, well, right now, my leg is screaming in pain. I've had training in ignoring pain so you probably can barely tell, but you're not used to it, you'll want the mead there to dull it."
He settled down onto the bench, resting his staff in the corner by the door. There was something about that door that Belle had noticed that seemed curious, and, having never been one to keep an honest question to herself, she commented on it.
"There's no lock on it. Not even a bolt. Anyone can come in whenever they please. Isn't that unwise?"
"Oh yes, this place is ripe for would-be-thieves. What could they take, dearie? The firewood? This bench? The picked over skeleton in the stable?"
Belle choked on the mead she'd been slugging down in an attempt to buck up her courage.
"That was a quip, woman." He reassured her, smiling for the first time since they'd met.
"Right. Sorry." She was going to need that mead badly before this night was over.
"We throw the skeletons down the well." Warned from the previous comment, she managed to only snort impolitely in response. Then Belle watched as he removed a dagger from his belt.
It was old and appeared to be made of flint, carved around the base, and with a hooked tip that seemed to be a second piece joined to the top. The whole thing gave Belle an uneasy feeling, but damn her tongue as she might, the questions just kept flowing. Maybe she could blame the mead.
"What is that?" She watched the blade warily, not sure what he was going to do with it.
"This," said the Merlin, "Is the dagger of office. It serves as proof of my power, and my personal ritual knife. The tip, legend has it, is the beak of the original Merlin, who died in that form. It is the blade we use to make our blood oaths, and the blade a Merlin uses to take his own life as sacrifice to the land in times of need. It is magic and the symbol of magic. Now, sit, and close your eyes."
Belle followed his instructions as he guided her through a meditation intended to bring the bond to the surface. She could feel, now, the warm comfort, the sleepy pull of the connection between her and Ella's child.
Then, abruptly, it was as if the world had spun her around, her stomach tumbling, her mind reeling, heart pounding in her ears. Her awareness has been stretched taut, and now Belle was feeling it snap back to her, a punch in the mind that left her eyes squeezed tight against the world and her fingers clenched in her hair. She curled up on the mattress, trying to ride out the storm of sensations, and when the confusion started to settle into something she could comprehend, the breath was knocked out of her by the phantom pain that shot through her leg. Was this what he felt, every day? It was stiff, and sore, and felt almost as if there was some force trying to pry off her kneecap like the top of a barrel. She stood and tested her weight on it, but it didn't seem to make any difference, though for a moment she felt as if she were looking at herself from outside. She looked so small. That faded, and soon the pain had retreated to a corner of her mind, so that if she wasn't thinking about it, it wasn't there. That makes sense, she thought, it's supposed to be only echoes of feeling.
"Stomach all right?" The Merlin was peering at her cautiously, as if she were a snake that might bite. "You think you can take care of things if I fetch water for some half-arsed porridge? It's enough for an old man like me, but you might desire something more."
"You cook?" Belle asked, then felt dumb for saying it. Of course he would cook, Druids didn't keep servants, they took care of themselves.
"Not well." He admitted with a smirk "So, I think I might leave that up to you in the future, if you prove better at the task."
"I think we'll have to save that for after you've tasted my attempts at cookery." Belle hoped to surprise a smile from him at that, but failed, possibly due to the fact she was still unsteady on her feet, and had half a skin of mead in her.
Jokes aside, they managed to get through a meal without any major disasters. A burned tongue had them both swearing, and each blamed the other for it, but the food was edible, if plain, and the day had been long. By the time everything had been cleaned up, Belle was dead on her feet, and was pleased to step out of her boots.
However, there was one problem. Well, one category that encompassed several problems, that category being the bed. Problem one, it was the only one, and might fit two people, though not without bodily contact. Problem two, the Merlin had insisted Belle take it, that he would sleep on the floor, even though they both knew his knee would not appreciate that. Problem three, Belle could not sleep alone, and was embarrassed to admit it.
"You are not sleeping on the ground!"
"Nor are you! It would be a disgrace for the Merlin of Britain to let a lady sleep on the floor when there is a perfectly good bed. I have slept in bramble patches before."
"And what happens when you are unable to walk in the morning, I'll feel that pain too, will I not?"
"Well, my dear, what would you have me do, share the bed with you?"
Belle flushed. "Well, why not? I'm small, and you aren't exactly a bull yourself, there's no reason we couldn't fit."
"Oh yes, we could, but I doubt your White Queen would be happy to hear tongues waggling about you being unable to deny sharing a bed with me. You know you'll be asked."
Belle thought about this for a while, and sighed. "All right then. You take the bed. I'll go sleep in the stable with the horses." It would have to do, the only way she could think of to keep the nightmares at bay would be a warm body beside her, and the little mare she had ridden liked her well enough.
She was pulling on her boots again when his hand caught her arm. "Why are you doing this?" He asked, puzzled.
"I don't know what you-"
"Horses? You'll go sleep beside the beasts when you could have a bed to yourself?"
"I will always choose beasts over an empty bed." The words were out of her mouth before Belle could stop them, and since she had begun she might as well finish it. "In my village... during the raids, women were abducted from their beds, raped, tortured, and if they were lucky lived out the rest of their lives crippled as the possession of some barbarian. It was rare when my mother was alive, but... tell that to my dreams."
A moment passed where neither of them spoke, and, hesitating, Belle let her boot fall to the floor again. Since he was giving no signs of protesting, she crawled across the small mattress and slipped under the rough woollen blanket. She waited, not daring look over her shoulder.
It seemed like an eternity before she heard the thump of shedding boots, and when she felt a weight settle beside her, Belle let out a breath she hadn't known she had been holding. "Thank you."
"It's no matter."
"All the same, thank you."
When Belle woke, the Merlin had already gotten up and was tending the fire. It was obvious, both from his posture and the bond, that crouching as he was did not agree with his leg.
"Here, let me." She swiftly got to her feet and took over, poking at the logs to find the hidden embers, muttering a little rhyme her mother had taught her. "Jump fire, jump spark, lest I be left in the dark."
Some of the kindling caught, and soon she had a blaze going. She looked up and found the Merlin staring at her with a look of amazement. "Sophia taught you that, didn't she?" He asked, gesturing to the fire.
Belle nodded, confused at why he asked. "My mother always had a little saying for daily tasks, she said it helped keep the mind healthy."
He laughed, and Belle thought it melted years away, seeing him smile. "It would, too, when you use the small magics all the time."
She sat back on her heels, stunned at what he had just told her. "Magic? That was magic?"
He raised a hand and wiggled his fingers. "More or less, yes."
Belle sucked in her breath, lost for words. Her mother had taught her magic. All those little things that she had just thought were Sophia's own habits she was passing to her daughter, how many of them were Avalon's teachings filtered through the lens of childhood? She stood and brushed off her skirt, a bit embarrassed at how quickly she'd returned to being overawed by things. She was accompanying the most powerful Druid in Britain, she had to learn to take these things in stride.
"Uhm. The fire's going, I'll go fetch some water so we can break our fast. Are we going to have an early start again?"
He nodded, still watching her with a little smile quirking his lips. Belle ducked out quickly, fighting a blush.
Roderick shook his head when the door closed, still smiling. "Well, I may have gotten more than I bargained for."
It proved to be an accurate prediction. Even though they left early, by the time the sun had set the pair were still far from any residence, and forced to make camp alongside the Roman road. If he had expected Lady Isabel to shy away from the hard work of travel, he would have been disappointed. Not only did she not complain, she had already managed to understand the workings of their bond well enough to best gage their food needs as well as take care of the horses, since his leg had him unable to stand, little as he liked to admit it.
Making camp together meant they were sleeping side by side, just as close as the previous night, but in the absence of a bed, it seemed far less intimate. Not that Isabel had minded, but it still felt wrong of him to risk her honour that way. Had she been priestess trained, as Nova was, or a bard trainee, he wouldn't have been bothered. There was an understanding the world had, that rid the closeness of travelling companions from Avalon's orders of any scandal. But Belle had only the scant tricks Sophia had passed along before... well.
That was another thing. Isabel didn't know the whole story of her mother. Roderick only knew what had made it through the land and through the high Druidic circles. Too much of it was held close by the Lady, and what he knew didn't bode well for him, or for Avalon, did it get back to Arthur and his queen.
Well, it was no business of theirs anyways. Those with magic would deal with matters of magic. He'd deal with the needs of the land when they got to Urien's court, though it would be a few weeks journey. Hopefully the people would still welcome him as messenger of the gods, it was difficult to tell how much sway Avalon and magic still held in a land so rapidly converting to Christianity. Urien would, of course. It would be good to be back in the Rheged, even for business. Coming home always was a relief of his burdens.
But such plans would have to wait, the fears Isabel had confided had given him a thought, and perhaps it was time to visit an old acquaintance, one who might be able to soothe them. If she didn't throw him out on his arse just on principle.
"Ah, Isabel. Tomorrow we'll be reaching a town, and there's a woman there I'm going to try to meet with."
Isabel looked up from where she was feeding the fire. "You say try to meet with? You mean she might not see you?"
He had to exercise what willpower remained to keep the embarrassment from leaking through the bond. Really, he called himself the Merlin and this was how he acted? "I have a... complicated relationship with her. As with most people, in fact. But she's a particular case and might not want to see me. If she refuses, you will have to talk to her." He saw the panic flicker across her face, felt the faint echo as she failed to shield her emotions. "Nothing to worry about, she will like you, and there isn't anything too complicated you'll need to tell her, if it even comes to that."
Belle's uneasiness held through the night, so that even curled back to back, she slept little and lightly, waking at any sound. He couldn't tell what it was that was waking her, if the fears she'd spoken of kept her from sleeping sound, or if it was simply being out in the wilds. The rough tent he'd put together was large enough they didn't need to touch at all, but finally Roderick gave in, and, pretending it was an unconscious movement on his part, he rolled over and pulled the girl to nestle to his shoulder. When she relaxed visibly in his grasp, he knew he'd not be sleeping very well himself.
No matter. He'd held vigils before, though never with such lovely company. Sleep could come when he'd brought Belle to the town to make her peace with her nightmares.
Ella was still bed bound, but try as they may to tell her that, she was not calming down. Belle had taken the cost of saving her life, and not even given her a chance to say no. Of course, nothing she could have said would have stopped Belle if she had put her mind to it, but they didn't even consult with her. Ella did not blame Belle, of course, but Arthur was King, he should have done something. He should have stopped that man from taking their Belle away! Belle belonged here, with her and Gwen, telling stories and teasing her about her terrible Latin or patching up Gwen after she'd gone into battle with a needle and come out worse for it. As kind as Avalon's priestess might be, she wasn't Belle, and the family the three women had formed was incomplete. The balance was off. Gwen, quiet but proud, and Ella, modest but talkative, they needed their quietly strong Belle with her core of iron, her self-sacrificing nature the very thing that took her away from them.
Nova was kind, but so unsure of herself in a way that Belle never was. Ella didn't want to be unfair to the woman, after all it was her teas and syrups that were easing her pain and nausea so effectively. She just couldn't help seeing her as a poor replacement for Belle. But her anger wasn't focused on Nova, just on the man who had brought her.
She wanted to find a way to force the Merlin to free Belle. And because of that, she was at her desk, much against the wishes of her nurses and friends, writing a letter.
I am writing this knowing you are not one to be overawed by Avalon and its folk. I must be brief, Avalon has taken one of Gwen's women, and the loss of a dear companion is not something your daughter should be made to bear. The King will do nothing, and Gwen loves him too much to speak out against Avalon if he will not. Please, if it is within your power, can you find a way to see Lady Isabel returned to us? It pains me to think that she would spend all her days as body servant to the Merlin, especially as he claimed her as payment for my own healing.
It would have to do.
Regina would find a way to get Belle back. If anyone knew how much the Queen needed the support of her ladies, she did. How could she not, having raised the girl as her own daughter? Yes, Ella was sure, Regina would see that it was a crime for Avalon to steal one of the High Queen's own companions. Gwen would thank her for asking her stepmother's aid. Yes. She'd get a messenger to send it right away. Her head swam and her lungs ached with the effort of walking from desk to door. She had to stop, holding onto the doorframe, and wait.
One of the tribesmen who looked in on her was coming up the hall as she looked out, and he hurried, worry evident in the posture of the small man as he ushered her back into her bed, taking the letter without letting her speak.
He returned quickly with Nova and one of her bitter teas, but Ella had to admit they helped. She also had to stifle her giggle at the way the man watched the priestess work, enraptured. She'd never seen any women of the Old Folk, but she had a feeling that no one else would capture his attention so obviously.
How to make Nova aware of it? Belle would know. Yes. More reason to get her back. Belle brought love to everyone around her. A gift like that was wasted on such a creature as the Merlin.