Lady Guinevere du Lac pauses outside the doors of the throne room. She doesn't know why Queen Annis has summoned her, but she has an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of her stomach she can't shake.
She knows there are any number of reasons why the Queen of Caerleon would command her presence, but there is only one that keeps swirling in Guinevere's mind.
What if she wishes me to marry?
Guinevere has been a widow for just over a year, having lost her husband, Sir Lancelot du Lac of Caerleon, in a battle with Odin's kingdom. If Camelot hadn't come to Caerleon's aid, she would have lost her brother as well. They would have been slaughtered.
Still, she was left without a husband and did not even have a child by him to help keep the memory of his noble face and kind brown eyes alive in her heart.
She is young. She's had offers (one came almost immediately after Lancelot's body was laid to rest), but has refused, choosing to live as a childless widow with her brother in the Leodegrance family home. So it is not outside of the realm of possibility that the queen would summon her with the intent of marrying her to a lesser lord to gain his fealty.
Best not keep her waiting. She nods to the guard and he pushes the doors open. She sees no one inside except for the queen and her brother, Sir Elyan of the Knights of Caerleon.
She squares her shoulders, preparing herself for the inevitable.
“Ah, Lady Guinevere, thank you for coming,” Queen Annis greets as soon as she sees her.
Guinevere curtseys, waiting.
“Please come forward,” the queen invites.
Guinevere slowly walks towards the queen, eyes briefly flickering towards the empty throne beside her. Annis is also a widow; her husband died in the same battle as Lancelot. This commonality has forged an interesting relationship between the two women. Guinevere wouldn't call them “friends”, but she does feel a kinship with the older woman, like they are both members of the same group, and Annis has never been anything but kind towards Guinevere and Elyan.
“You look a trifle gray, Guinevere, are you well?” Annis asks.
“I am, my lady,” she answers. Just nervous.
Annis nods, then chuckles as though she has just realized something. “I'm not going to marry you off to some old lord, Gwen,” she says with a smile.
Guinevere's eyes widen, both at the queen's familiarity and her intuition. “Oh… I didn't…”
“Yes, I believe you did,” Annis counters, still smiling. Then her smile drops. “However, you may wish that was my command,” she says, suddenly serious.
“I would like you to go to Camelot,” the queen simply states.
“Camelot?” Guinevere asks, confused, but appreciating Annis' notorious directness.
“King Arthur has asked my assistance in providing a tutor for his children,” Annis explains. “I can think of no better candidate than you, Guinevere.”
“Me, my lady? Why me?”
“You are a well-respected, highly educated lady from a noble family,” the queen explains. “You are unmarried but not a naive young courtier who is prone to flights of fancy.” She leans slightly forward and pointedly adds, “And I do believe you could do with a change of scenery.”
Guinevere looks down, noting how the queen's eyes had traveled over her gown. Widow's mourning black. Long sleeved, high-necked, hair covered. Six months is the customary length of time for a widow to dress as such, but Guinevere has been doing so longer than twice that.
“Yes, my lady,” she quietly answers. “Thank you.”
“Gwen,” Annis says, “I am not ordering you to go.” Guinevere lifts her gaze. “I am strongly recommending you do so, but I will not force you.”
“Oh,” Guinevere replies.
“You have the day to decide. I need to send word back to Camelot, so please give me your decision by sundown,” the queen declares with a nod.
“Thank you, my lady.” Guinevere curtseys again, then glances at her brother.
“Sir Elyan, please escort your sister wherever she desires to go,” Annis says. She knows Guinevere will want to discuss this with him, and hopes he will steer her in the right direction.
“Yes, my lady,” Elyan replies, stepping forward and offering his arm to his younger sister.
“You think I should go,” Guinevere says while he's still thinking about how to broach the topic. They are outside the castle and able to speak freely.
“Yes,” he answers. “I do. I think it will be good for you.”
“I don't know,” she says with a light sigh.
“Gwen,” Elyan says, pausing to look at her. “I don't want you to go. I like having you here. You're my only sister, and the only family I have left.”
“But?” she prompts, tugging his arm so they start walking again.
“But, you aren't happy here. You're… what's the word? Idle. Stuck.”
“Stuck?” she asks as they walk to the doors of their family home.
“Stuck,” he confirms, opening the door for her. He nods at a servant when they enter. “You're paddling in the stream to keep your head above water, but not moving.” They sit. Another servant brings a pitcher and fills goblets of wine for them.
“I am content,” Guinevere protests, but even she doesn't believe it.
“Pssh,” Elyan blows, rolling his eyes a little. It draws a sheepish smile from his sister and he reaches out to pluck her sleeve. “Gwen, it's time to put the black clothing away,” he gently says. “You are still young, smart, and beautiful; do not let yourself die just because your husband did. I know you loved him. He was the best man I ever knew, you know that. But you need to… stop existing and start living. I don't want you to go, but I have to say that maybe getting out of Caerleon will help. Get a fresh start in a new place.”
She reaches for her goblet, but doesn't take it, instead running her finger around the edge. “It's a very big change,” she softly says.
“I know. I know it's scary,” he replies.
“Camelot is not as civilized as Caerleon,” she continues.
“That is probably why the king wanted someone from the outside to teach the princes. I can't imagine anyone there having any knowledge outside of combat techniques,” he says. Then, realizing how that sounds, he quickly adds, “But I'm sure there is more to the kingdom than that. We shouldn't make judgments about places we have never seen.”
She laughs a little. “They say the king is little more than a warlord.”
“He is a great warrior, I do know that. I've seen him in battle.” His eyes get a far-off look in them as he remembers. “He's… amazing. No one could best him. He was bruised and bloodied and still he sent Odin's best warrior scurrying with his tail between his legs.” Elyan's eyes snap back into focus and he adds. “Can't say anything about his skill at running a kingdom, I'm afraid. But a man who is that good on the battlefield cannot be a fool.”
“Is he a… a very large man?” Guinevere asks, picturing a huge, brutish hulk, possibly bigger than Sir Percival but thrice as ugly.
“Hmm? No,” Elyan replies. “I never really saw him up close, but he appeared to be quite… normal. Taller than me, but then most men are,” he pauses, chuckling. The House of Leodegrance has many positive qualities, but height is not one of them. Loyalty, wisdom, and true nobility are the earmarks of their line, and they proudly uphold those values. “Though not as tall or as broad as Percival. I've never seen reflexes like his, nor his ability to read an opponent.”
“It is truly a wonder,” she says, her mouth curving in a wry smile that her brother doesn't yet see.
“Yes, as I said, a man like that will be no foo—”
“No, it is truly a wonder you survived the battle,” she continues. “Since it seems you were spending all your time watching the great King Arthur instead of fighting.”
He catches the glimmer in her eyes now, and starts laughing. “He was difficult to miss,” he explains, grinning bashfully. He takes a drink of his wine, then asks, “So?”
Guinevere pauses, looking at her lap, then at her brother. She reaches up and removes the ornately woven snood containing her hair, and her long, dark curls tumble out over her shoulders. “I'll go. On one condition,” she states, her fingers toying with the edge of the material.
“I'm not certain I am the one with whom to negotiate,” Elyan says.
“I want you to escort me to Camelot,” she explains, reaching for his hand.
“I think that can be arranged,” he replies with a smile.
When Guinevere returns to the castle, Queen Annis sees her in her private salon.
“Please, sit,” the queen says, motioning to an upholstered chair.
“Thank you, my lady,” Guinevere says. She has changed clothes and is now wearing a simple lavender gown. It is old, but it is not black.
“So you have decided to go to Camelot,” Annis says with a light smile.
“Yes, my lady,” Guinevere answers. “I assume my dress gave me away.”
The queen nods. “I will send word to King Arthur before the end of the day.” She reaches for a parchment, her eyes scanning it for a moment. “He has stated that you shall receive your own private rooms within the castle. Will that be satisfactory?” she asks, looking up.
“Is he looking for a governess or simply a tutor?” she asks, thinking it a little unusual that a tutor be expected to live in the castle.
“He has requested a tutor, but if there is one thing I have learned as queen is to expect the unexpected,” Annis answers. “He has three sons,” she explains. “Queen Mithian died a few years ago, so these boys may be starved for… motherly affection.”
“Oh, dear…” Guinevere says, biting her lower lip. She has always wanted children, but she and Lancelot were never blessed, and Annis knows this.
The queen reaches across and pats her hand. “No one is asking you to be their mother, Gwen,” she reassures her. “I simply wish for you to arrive in Camelot with your eyes as wide open as possible.” She sighs. “His youngest son is only five, and will likely have no memory of his mother at all, poor thing.”
Guinevere's own mother passed away when she was ten, and she knows how it feels to not have a mother. She nods, then says, “Thank you, my lady.”
“Now. Details,” Annis brightens a bit. “Elyan will escort you to Caerleon, yes?”
Guinevere smiles. “Thank you,” she repeats. “I wanted nothing more than for him to accompany me.”
“Will you be bringing your lady's maid? I would consider sending another knight along if there are two of you.”
“Ah, no, my lady. Sefa is betrothed to the butcher's son, and I will neither take her away from him nor take him from his family, especially considering the recent state of his father's health,” Guinevere answers. “Elyan suggested I take someone else, but there really is no one he can spare,” she adds. “At least in my opinion.”
“I will send word to Arthur that you will require a maidservant,” Annis decisively states.
“That's really not necessary, my lady, I will be—“
The queen holds up a hand, stopping Guinevere's words. “Nonsense. I will word the request… tactfully,” she smiles.
Guinevere nods, trusting her queen. Annis' talent for diplomacy is legendary and she has no doubt that King Arthur will find himself happily complying with the queen's request.
“I will send the messenger out this evening and you and Elyan will set out the day after next,” Annis says. “That should give you enough time to pack any belongings you wish to bring.
“Yes, my lady. Thank you,” Guinevere replies.
“No, Gwen. Thank you.”
“Can't sleep?” Elyan's quiet voice causes Guinevere to startle in her seat in front of the fire. She had bidden her brother goodnight an hour earlier, but when her head hit her pillow, her mind was reeling. “Sorry; I saw light coming from your open door.”
“It's all right,” she replies with a sigh. “Too much on my mind.” Sitting in a dressing gown over her nightdress, her hair in a long braid over her shoulder, she looks up at him.
“May I sit with you?” he asks, stepping into the room. He, too, is in his sleepwear covered by a dressing gown.
“Please,” she invites. He steps over and sits in the chair opposite hers. “There's a lot to do,” she says.
“That's not it,” he counters with a smile.
“No, that's not it,” she echoes. A log shifts in the fire, then settles with a soft, crackly thud. Elyan gets up and places another one in the flames. “I put on a brave face for the queen, but… I'm scared.”
“I know,” he says. “I would be surprised and a little concerned if you weren't.”
“Camelot… it isn't really reputed to be the most civilized kingdom. And no one can tell me anything about King Arthur that is terribly reassuring, and…”
“The queen didn't say anything about him?” Elyan asks.
“I didn't think to ask,” Guinevere admits. “I wish I had. And I won't get an opportunity now, because she is in council all day tomorrow.”
“Right,” her brother nods. “I have to attend.”
He nods. “If I hear anything about him that might be helpful to you, I'll let you know. I'll try to pay attention. Well, enough to notice if I hear his name anyway,” he chuckles.
“Thank you,” she says, knowing how much he hates having guard duty for council meetings. They silently stare at the fire for a short time. “I suppose Annis wouldn't send me someplace that isn't safe…” she says, trailing off at the end, trying to find reason.
“Of course not,” Elyan immediately agrees. “If she thought you would be in danger, she would have refused King Arthur and you would be none the wiser,” he continues. “She is a good queen, and she likes you. She absolutely would not send you to a kingdom where you would not be safe.”
“Yes,” Guinevere says, allowing herself to get caught up in her brother's optimism. “Surely Camelot cannot be as barbaric as everyone says.”
“Right. I think it's simply a matter of no one really knows,” he reasons. “It's not like people pass through there on a regular basis,” he adds with a shrug. Camelot is far to the south and isn't on the way to anywhere noteworthy other than the sea. And people wishing to travel by ship would be more likely to travel from Cornwall, as it has the more established harbor.
“I wonder why King Arthur hasn't come to visit Caerleon, since they are our allies,” Guinevere muses. She may have gotten to meet him had he been here in the past.
“He did, but it was very short and just after you and Lancelot were wed,” Elyan explains. “He did not even stay the night, in fact.”
“Oh. How strange,” she says with a slight frown. They would have missed it because they traveled the short distance to visit Lancelot's great aunt and uncle in Nemeth right after their wedding. The elderly couple could not make the trip for the wedding, and as they raised Lancelot, it was important to him that they visited them.
“I didn't really get to see him myself as I was on patrol that day,” Elyan explains. “But I heard he didn't feel he could leave his kingdom for very long.” Guinevere nods, and he adds. “His wife was carrying their first child.”
“Was she here, too?”
“No. She could not travel. I wondered how much of a role that played in his hasty departure, but of course no one would ask such a thing,” he says.
Nearly twelve years ago. “How old is he?” she asks, curious.
“About my age, I would guess,” he answers. “Certainly not old. I heard he was not yet twenty when King Uther died.”
“So young to be made king,” Guinevere says, almost to herself. Her eyes are starting to get heavy now. Talking to her brother is helping calm her troubled mind. “I'm still scared, Elyan,” she whispers after a moment.
“I know, Gwen,” he replies, repeating his earlier response. He reaches his hand across, and she takes it.
“It's a big change,” she says. “I've lived here my whole life… I don't know anyplace else… I won't know anyone there… I…” her voice trembles, then fails.
“Gwennie,” Elyan says, squeezing her hand. “You've spent your life being good. Making choices that are… safe. Sometimes taking a leap can mean discovering you can fly.”
Or I'll plummet to my death. Guinevere knows better than to speak her pessimistic thought, so she simply nods and wipes away a tear. Then she smiles a little, remembering how her adventurous older brother was frequently getting into trouble for taking leaps. But it also made him into one of the finest, bravest knights in Caerleon's army.
He squeezes her hand again, then releases it and turns to fully face her. “I won't let anything bad happen to you. If you find you're completely miserable there, just write and I will come and get you, damn the consequences.”
“Thank you, El,” she quietly answers. Her brother's words are comforting, and she tells herself to be brave despite her anxiety. I can do this.