The first time he had seen her face to face, Merlin had warned him of her.
"She's strong, and I sometimes fear that she might even be stronger than I am," he said, hard of heart and eyes dulled out, and Gwaine could guess that their history ran deeper than they all assumed, even Arthur. But these were thoughts and troubles, that Gwaine kept to himself, guarded in his heart, in the same fashion that Merlin would guard his own. "You mustn't be swayed by her words, Gwaine — she's a liar. It was her treachery that led to Uther's death, and if we're not careful, she might kill Arthur under our noses."
"What a shame," sighed Gwaine, his eyes never leaving the witch currently bound by crackling magic of Merlin's own creation, her eyes full of darkness and fear, though more importantly hatred, "for she has the face of an angel."
"A face, yes," Merlin said, his voice grave, "but her heart is made of stone."
Gwaine could only wonder what made it so. He would probably never know.
"A young warlock warned me from you," he said casually. The hunting party rode for Camelot, with the witch's hands bound tightly, and her magic kept in place my Merlin's own. In the question of prowess, Merlin was undoubtedly strong, but Morgana seemed wily and cunning and all those sorts of things Gwaine heard about witches and sorcerers, rumours and whispers that would make his skin crawl with dread and horror. She was made of nightmares, from head to toe, but she was a deceptively beautiful one.
Arthur rode up front, Merlin on his right and Lancelot on his left, and Gwaine was tasked with the important duty of keeping the witch in check. Arthur noticed that he was the only one unafraid of her (at times, he could be so aware of his surroundings, it was terrible, because Gwaine wouldn't be able to keep a secret from him even if he tried). In fact, Merlin had noted, which much unvoiced dissatisfaction, that he seemed more intrigued than frightened of her capabilities, and had repeatedly asked him to be careful, all the while giving the sorceress dark looks that Gwaine would not have thought Merlin was capable of giving.
Gwaine had lived in Camelot for a good long while, and he had never felt as clueless and confused (though, admittedly, curious) as he did now. It was, however, admittedly entertaining, seeing a battle of wills clashing in front of him like the ongoing of a dangerous storm.
Morgana Pendragon looked at him, eyes black as the night and lips pursed into a condescending frown, but said nothing in return. Gwaine continued on, unperturbed. "You seem to have caused him grave distress in the past."
To his mild surprise, she smiled.
"It wouldn't be right of me to take all the glory, sir knight," she responded, with all the air of a regal queen, and Gwaine could plainly see that she was high born, and even if Uther had not begotten her, her noble ancestry would still ring true. Gwen had told him once that she would have been made queen of Camelot, by way of marriage with Arthur, and she would have been very good, for she was loved above all other nobility save the king and his son. That right of hers was taken away the moment she walked out of Camelot, head held high and magic thrumming in her veins, running to the darkness that ruined her for good.
She must hate Merlin very much now, really, for he had everything she could have possibly had, and more. Friends, and a home, and his magic to keep him safe — while she scoured the lands trying to find a place where she belonged.
"After all, the cause of his own distress is himself," she continued on, unaware of his passing thoughts. "His guilt is lies unwashed under the shadows of his own darkness, and there lies his greatest weakness."
Gwaine felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as she spoke, her voice melodious but so very dark, but he stood his ground, eyeing her with curiosity. "You seem to know much about him, my lady."
Her smile widened — cold and bitter — but she said nothing else.
"Do you not fear me?" she asked hollowly, as they stepped inside the borders of Camelot. Her face was scrunched up at the sight of it the stone castle erect in the midst of the large forest, her nose wrinkled and her brows furrowed, as though her return marked her physically with hurt and pain, yet she had no choice but to bear it all and bury it. If Gwaine was looking hard enough, perhaps he would be able to see the sadness in her eyes — but he knew little of her, and saw only the hate manifested in her gaze. "I can kill you with a flick of a finger."
"But you haven't yet," he replied easily. "So I have nothing to fear yet, do I?"
"A daring knight," she drawled, "or a reckless fool?"
"Strength," he said, softly, "is mastery of courage and absence of fear, or I've heard before. Not exactly sure how it works, but it works."
She chuckled darkly, looking off to the side. The darkness of the night was sweeping in like the currents of the sea, a mass of velvet towering over their heads. The evening star was upon them, a single speck of brightness. "You are no master," she said decisively, as if she knew him. She judged easily, but Gwaine supposed that he couldn't blame her for that. "Only a simple man who still don't know his place in the world. Pity."
"Yet I am Strength," he said. He didn't know why he was telling her that.
She eyed him, and for the first time, there was interest sparking in her eyes. "What is your name?"
"Gwaine," he replied, glancing at her before turning his eyes back on the road.
Two weeks had passed since the great debate between king and sorcerer, and the whole court, so far, had managed to avoid the crossfire. Morgana was still alive, and Arthur refused to have it otherwise, despite the laws that he, and his ancestors, his father, had implemented against traitors to the kingdom. There was something eerie frightening about that, but Gwaine wasn't going to say much about it as long as he wasn't asked. Merlin was beyond himself, needing judgment to be passed for all the crimes and hurt that Morgana committed against Camelot, against Arthur, against himself, and was denied it. He sought the privacy of the woods, and the lake he so loved for an unfathomable reason. Camelot was darkening as the days passed, and Gwaine wondered if it was all magic, or simply a reflection of the Merlin's despair.
Arthur hadn't said much since, but that was simply Arthur trying to be the king that no one believed he was, and Gwaine learned not to take him at face value.
Morgana had smirked at him, amused, when he told her of his musings. Her hands rested on her lap as she looked through the window her eyes like glass. "Do you believe him to be so great that he could summon wind and storm at a wave of his hand?"
"You said you could kill me with a flick of a finger," he reminded her. He leaned against the door, watching her watching the world. It was more of a pastime now than a job, really, to watch over her and make sure she did no harm (to herself or otherwise, Arthur had explicitly ordered). She was docile at her worst and remarkably, painfully witty during her good days. It kept him interested, at least, and he wondered if this was her plan to ensnare him in her web of deceit.
He wondered, idly, if she knew that it would not work, no matter how hard she tried.
"So I did," she laughed, then turned her eyes on him. "Very clever, Strength."
He shrugged, charming despite his placidity. "I do try."
"Merlin is more than just a sorcerer, for he is magic itself, in its entirety," she said ominously. "Or so I've been told."
"Or so you've been told."
"The Old Religion has many secrets, some of which I know very little about, and others I dare not say to those who do not practice it." She gave him a long look of consideration, as if deliberating if it was worth telling him what she knows. "Merlin — or Emrys, I should say, for that is his real name — is so great a secret that all of those who practice magic know his name. To summon a storm is very little a feat to him, now that he has discovered himself."
Somehow, Gwaine was not surprised by this fresh information, for he had always believed his friend to be powerful. After all, it was not only luck that had kept him from revealing his direst secret during Uther's reign. Merlin had certainly never refrained from accepting the shower of praises other users of magic had offered him, though he would turn pink at even the slightest gesture.
"And I?" Her eyes positively glittered with dark enigma. "I am a seer, and a witch, and an abomination."
Gwaine snorted. "Well, I'm aware of that."
"My legacy lies in Camelot and its destruction, and that's all I'll ever live for," she declared, pride seeping through her words, and for a moment, Gwaine felt fear seeping in his heart for the briefest of moments. Camelot was his home, his place of sanctuary, and she would bury it to the ground if she could do it now. "That's how it shall be written in the pages of history, anyway."
"You used to love this kingdom," he said, taking a stab at the dark. "You used to love Arthur."
At that, she turned away again, and Gwaine thought that she might have looked sad. "You know what they say about those who assume, Sir Gwaine."
She eyed him with surprise one day, but there was an earnest expression in her face. He half-grinned as she sat down on her chaise lounge, not a care in the world. "What game are you playing at?" she demanded, but she far from feeling snappish. In fact, Gwaine could even hazard a guess that she was slightly pleased.
"I'm curious, so indulge me," he said, shrugging. "What's it like to use magic?"
"As though all my problems could be solved with a simple enchantment, and a wave of my hand," she answered swiftly, and her voice was ethereal, a soft turn from the ominous tone she had every time she spoke. "Everything I wanted, I could have them." Her eyes sparkled, and her hands tightly wrapped over her lap. "Anything I didn't want, I could destroy them."
"Freedom," he said.
She closed her eyes, and whispered: "Yes, and so much more."
"How is she?"
It was the standard question on his morning reports, very tedious and very redundant, but it had to be done. Arthur was his king, after all — first and foremost his friend, of course, but they shrugged at specifics at this point in their lives — and he was merely a lowly knight in his service. Still, all things considered, he should be thankful that his 'duties' at least involved eating breakfast with the king. It wasn't something that either would acknowledge, but Arthur enjoyed Gwaine's company far more so than anyone else in the kingdom, Merlin notwithstanding.
And so, here he was.
"Uptight as always," he said casually, slicing his steak not to gently. "Reminds me of you sometimes, princess. Only, she does mention burning down Camelot an awful lot."
As usual, Arthur decided to ignore the remark. "So nothing has changed?"
He paused. "I suppose you want to know if she still has any intention of leaving. I can't answer that, Arthur. I'm not Merlin, and I'm certainly not a mind-reader."
It was a mark of their friendship when all Arthur said was: "Try."
"She relishes the fact that your friendship with Merlin is suffering because of her presence," he said truthfully, making Arthur frown on his food, and Gwaine didn't let his honesty go to waste, because Arthur needed to understand what was going on around him, "but she has no intention of interfering with your business. If you do decide to execute her eventually, then she'll accept it."
"Just like that?"
"Of course, she'll enjoy the look on your face as she suffers while burning at the stake," he went on, a humourless smirk making its way across his features. It wasn't funny, then, when it was strangers being burned at midday, their screams echoing across the lands of Albion, and it was hardly funny now, when all Gwaine thought of at the idea of Morgana burning was that her lovely hair would be so wretched afterwards. "You still love her like a sister, and she knows it."
The whole of Camelot did, for that matter.
"She relishes in that fact."
"She is my sister." Arthur's face hardened slightly, as if he himself could not reconcile with the truth of the matter. And then, he shook his head, looking every bit of the tired king that he was. "What should I do, Gwaine? I don't have the heart to kill her. I may punish her for all the deeds that she has done against Camelot, against my father, against me, but I can't —"
His voice broke.
Gwaine sighed, and poured him a cup of wine.
"Someday, you'll have to make up your mind, Arthur. I shouldn't make these decisions for you."
"You know nothing about her," said Merlin, one day, out of the blue. "She will never see things the way you do, and she will resent you for it eventually."
If Gwaine heard the bitterness in his voice, or the edge of nostalgia clinging to the expression on his face, he chose to ignore it. "I'm aware of her tendencies, since I've been watching her ever since we came back, but she's not completely evil, Merlin. I think you know that very well. There's still a place for goodness in her heart, if you choose to make amends. Both of you."
Merlin was once again sitting on the edge of the forest lake, his eyes clouded with his troubles. Gwaine could do little to help, but he chose to stay by his friend's side today, nevertheless. Sometimes, he learned that by just being there for a friend, silent and unassuming, was more than enough of a reason to stay, and Gwaine was the sort who always treasured the knowledge he found.
"Some bridges can't be mended," the sorcerer replied softly. "Don't ask something like this from me, Gwaine. I can't do it, and neither will she."
Somewhere in his heart, Gwaine had known this to be true.
"What happened, Merlin?" he asked, perhaps a little too bluntly, but there was no way around that now.
"Arthur," he replied simply.
"It's only ever been about Arthur to him," she said carelessly as she brushed her hair. "Just like Uther."
Today, she and Arthur were to go hunting on the outskirts of Camelot. Merlin and about half of the Knights of Camelot were to follow and watch over them, as per usual, and not without causing chaos that thankfully blew over relatively quickly. He dared not speak his thoughts on the matter, especially not to her, but he hadn't seen her as excited as this over a simple trip outside the castle. There was a buzz in the castle when Arthur announced (he had to announce it, bless his dear soul), and it took the greatest part of Merlin not to punch Arthur in front of the whole court (or so he said, and Gwaine was more than inclined to believe him, looking at his murderous expression). Gwaine, though, was not stupid; he knew that Arthur was trying to make amends with his half-sister the best way he knew, and Merlin was only try to keep him alive.
The deranged, half-sister, or the overprotective best friend — Arthur would faint at the thought of choosing between them, and his face paled considerably when Merlin started to look as though he was going to make him do it.
it was always so... complicated, with her around.
"You must have known by now, Sir Gwaine, for you aren't a stupid man," she went on, and he smiled, humourless, at the seemingly innocent compliment. "Merlin may seem like a thorn on Arthur's side at times, but his true purpose comes to life when Arthur is in danger."
"I don't think he's a thorn on Arthur's side," Gwaine opined, only half-regretting speaking about it with Morgana. She was sure that this was breaking a certain mortal code, regarding best friends and secrets, but he wanted her opinion (as though it mattered, which, on the whole, it really didn't), and she was simply more than happy to supply her less than kind thoughts. "The king considers him a very dear friend."
"Arthur lacks friends," she said quietly, assuredly. She had always believed what she said. "Even when he was a kid, he was surrounded by people who saw his crown. It was a lonely existence, and I pitied him for it. He keeps what he can have to make sure none of them leave him."
"I don't think you know him well enough to know that," he disagreed. "Arthur has made many friends through all the great deeds he has done for each and every one of them." He knew that from experience. He bit his tongue afterward, to prevent himself to pointing out her loneliness. He was no blind man, after all, and neither was he stupid.
She hissed at him, the angel's face contorting into that of a snake, of the vilest kind. This, he supposed, was the face that Merlin saw every day in his dreams. "And you do? Do you know him well enough to be sure?"
"More than you think," he said firmly.
There was a pregnant pause before she smiled again, and stark against the backdrop of the sunset light, she was all sorts of beautiful, forlorn, and sinister — and Gwaine saw, for the first time in a long time, the depth of her darkness, and the callousness of her heart. "You wouldn't know what I think."
"Why don't you tell me?" he cajoled, taking a couple of steps forward.
Her eyes narrowed. "You're playing with fire."
"If fire wants to play, then I'll indulge it," he said softly, quietly. He dared not come closer to her, however, content with standing in the middle of the room, watching as she fumbled in her mind for words to scar him with. He was impenetrable, and it frustrated her. "If I get burned, it's nothing that a quick kiss wouldn't be able to heal, now is it? I'm no simpleton."
Again, she turned from him, her curls falling to one side, hiding her expression.
"If Arthur considers you a friend, then he is indeed a fool."
"You're getting quite attached to her."
Gwaine did not expect Gwen to be the one to confront him, but in retrospect, he supposed that it was all well and good. Arthur did not have a single sensitive bone in his body (most of the time, because he was really a great king and a gentle soul and all those kinds of things that he really didn't care to say out loud), and Merlin wouldn't listen through his resentment. The others saw him doing his duty, and Gwaine took careful pains not to let them show how easygoing his relationship with the witch was. Gwen, though, was no simple fool. Never had been, and that was what he liked most about her.
He smiled at the queen, and patted the seat next to him. There were times when watching the knights' training was far more relaxing than joining them, and having company was more than enough to soothe him.
"I have absolutely no idea who you're talking about," he said jovially. "Though, I'd very much like to hear all about her. She must be a really gorgeous woman, to have captured the attention of one upstanding knight such as myself."
She laughed, humouring him despite the gravity of her words. "Yes, she's very good-looking, and once, she was considered the most beautiful woman in all of Camelot." Her smile turned sad, nostalgic, remembering times that were no more but mere memories now. Gwen did not get in the way of Arthur, Merlin, and Morgana's three-way crossfire, but Gwaine knew that she, too, held hope for patched relationships and healed hurts, despite the impossibility of it. "I loved her dearly as a friend, though I envied her."
"That's unbelievable, coming from you," he observed.
"From me, Gwen, or Queen Guinevere?"
"Both, I suppose," he grinned. "You are a woman made of confidence and steel. You're just unstoppable, always were."
"So is she," she pointed out.
"So she is," he agreed, noncommittal.
"I won't tell you if it's right or wrong, Gwaine," she continued on, "but I want you to be careful. For good or ill, I've always considered her my friend, and I'll continue to do so for the rest of my life. But I've known her for a very long time, and nothing much has changed since then: she won't give up what she has started for anyone."
Not even you.
Sometimes, it pained Gwaine to admit just how right Gwen was most of the time.
He managed to stop her before she got past the border, his ankles tangled up with hers as he pushed her against a tree, his expression of exasperation mingling with her fury. She was fire underneath his fingertips, their clothing doing nothing to cover up the obvious heat that drew him closer to her. His sword lied forgotten on the forest soil, and his hands buried in her body. There was no way to resist her, save for the words that would eventually spill from her tongue. He knew better than to expect anything, but he was not a man if he didn't want something, anything.
"Tut, tut, princess," he chastised lightly, and she growled behind gritted teeth. "You're going to make a lot of people very angry, do you know that?"
"Good," she spat. "Then, I've done my purpose."
"To stage your own captivity in order to create chaos in the holy grounds of Camelot? What a threat you are, really. You've got everyone fooled."
Her eyes flashed menacingly.
"Don't do this to Arthur, Morgana," he said, his voice sombre and his head shaking. "He loves you."
"I can't stay there," she hissed, and Gwaine wondered if it was her anger speaking or her helpless pleading. "The pitying glances, the angry snarls, Merlin and his godforsaken righteous judgment — I don't need these people, I don't need Arthur. I only need my magic, and with it, I will crush them all."
"And if I asked you to stay for me?"
"You're a fool," she whispered. "Fire burns."
"So it does," he acquiesced, and his mouth descended upon her.
Skin to skin; heart to heart.
"I've told you from the start," Merlin said, a hardened look on his face that Gwaine had never seen before in any man, "she was trouble."
"We've always known that," said Gwaine casually, a cup of mead in one hand and his sword on another. He wasn't bothered by all of it, not really. Not when he had time to think about the consequences of it. It was good while it lasted, in any case — not that Merlin would care to hear that from him. "I suppose I should listen to you more often. Sorry about that."
Merlin shook his head. "I can practically see all of that going over your head. Again."
Gwaine felt a pang of guilt, for letting her run, for keeping himself far too close to her for anyone's comfort, for knowing her all too well, for realizing that he would have let her go even if she didn't want to leave him, but the deed was done, and it was time. Merlin donned a sorcerer's cloak and a staff in his hands, and looked far more like Emrys than he was Merlin, and Gwaine wondered if this was Morgana's plan all along, to bring him out, and cause him all whole world of pain, without the mask of a servant to shield him, and without Arthur to defend him, without Camelot to hide him.
This was Merlin's fight, and his alone.
"Don't tell Arthur," Merlin pleaded quietly as he strapped the saddle on his horse.
"I suppose I've lied to him enough times," he smiled, eyes crinkling. "But when you're involved Merlin, it's not that simple. He'll follow you, especially now. His sister's on the loose and his court sorcerer's gone. It could only mean one thing, and we both know that he's not as stupid as he acts sometimes."
Merlin sighed, and closed his eyes.
"What's it like to have magic, Merlin?" he asked quietly.
His friend smiled. "Like I'm able to do anything I want to, for myself, for my mother, for my friends. Like I can save them from any evil that tried to harm them." He frowned, then, and opened his eyes, his troubles clouding his face. "If I can keep Arthur alive with my magic, I would be able to live the way I want. That's what I've been told, anyway."
The Old Religion. Gwaine bowed his head. "Freedom."
"Not quite, but close enough," Merlin confessed, and Gwaine raised his head. Merlin smiled. "Happiness."
"Did you love her?"
Sometimes, Gwaine knew that he was right whenever he thought (and pointed out to Merlin) that Arthur was not as much of an idiot as he seemed. There was understanding in his eyes, though overshadowed by concern and curiosity. Indeed, if anyone were to fall for Morgana Pendragon, it would be disaster, a wrecked love affair of lost souls and spiral abyss, and it would be him of all people.
"Not at all," he answered, and there was no lie in his voice. He had no love to give her, for she could not share her own to him. "Did you?"
Arthur pulled at his horse's reins, slowing down their pace into a canter that seemed out of place, considering that they were supposed to be chasing two warlocks out for each other's blood. Nevertheless, Gwaine followed his king.
"She's my sister," Arthur replied evenly. "I've always loved her, even when I thought she was not."
"Even when she killed your father?"
"My father killed himself through his own unhappiness," Arthur declared, his voice soft, laced with guilt, but resolute, like a whisper of a secret he'd longed shielded in his heart. No matter how harsh, he believed his words. There was no turning back from them. "Morgana was only a victim of his tragedy."
"And I?" Arthur scoffed, though there was no affronted tone in his voice. He was thoughtful, considering. "I'm now king. I suppose that says everything, doesn't it?"
Yes, Gwaine supposed that it did.