Frankly, as brawls went, it was nothing to write home about. Gwaine didn't see what all the fuss was over. No heads were split open, no one was chopped into slivers by sorcerous blades, no property was demolished.
Well. Unless you count the chicken coop. Those hens had it coming.
But apparently there was some kind of law against calling the Bishop of Northumbria a churlish bulbous-nosed whoremonger. A really appallingly stupid law, in Gwaine's opinion.
And how was he supposed to know the drunken clack-dish would have a herd of actual harpies at his beck and call?
So that was how a friendly round of fisticuffs led to their being forcibly expelled from the kingdom and chased by evil flying bird-women back across the border into Mercia. It's not like it was Gwaine's fault. These things just happened sometimes.
"Good God," Lancelot panted, ducking a particularly well-aimed swipe of talons. "I can't take you anywhere."
As with most good things, it all started in a tavern.
Not the thing with Merlin and his stupidly noble prince. Well, that too, clearly, without which probably none of the rest of this would have followed. And there was an evil overlord just begging to be knocked down a notch the second time, too. (Evil overlords were pretty thick on the ground these days, in Gwaine's opinion. Then again, most overlords were by definition evil, ergo.)
Point being, there was a Lord High Muckity-Muck of some village or another in East Anglia, and he needed a good fist to the face. Obviously. Which Gwaine was more than happy to provide, generous soul that he always was. And then, well, it got a little out of hand.
But that wasn't where he met Lancelot.
Where he met Lancelot was on the forested road out of Anonymous East Anglian Village, with a full purse of Lord High Muckity-Muck's ill-gotten gold, rumor of which of course attracted the bandits like flies to shit. And, as he would soon learn, bandits attracted Lancelot like, well, likewise.
A free agent with a sword needs to keep in fighting shape, after all.
Lest we forget, the whole incident began in a tavern, so it may generally be assumed that Gwaine was well on his way to stinking drunk by the time he hightailed it out of the village with the very reasonably reallocated purse. His instincts on the road were sharp as ever; his reflexes, however, somewhat less so.
Also, there were six of them. Not that Gwaine couldn't easily best six other fighters on a good day – and he has the Camelot Melee Medal to prove it – but there's a world of difference between Gwaine on his best day and Gwaine alone in the woods at night, so drunk he can barely keep his saddle.
The bandits kindly eased him out of the saddle before they started laying in on him.
Still, he was holding his own when the other bloke flounced in with bells on. Not literally. But his sword certainly had a bell-like ring as he unsheathed it, and he was entirely too flouncy for a misbegotten melee with bandits in the forest.
"For the Lady Guinevere!" the stranger cried, sword flashing.
"Oh, hell yes," he said fervently, and threw his best dagger into another bandit's neck.
Although afterward, once the bandits were sufficiently cleared away, he did feel obligated to bring it up. "For the Lady Guinevere, really?" he mocked. "Because ruffians being sliced into bits in her name, that'll really bring a song to Gwen's heart."
The stranger shrugged, unruffled. He wiped the worst of the blood off his blade against the mossy ground, then buffed it to a proper shine with a handkerchief. "I suppose I could just shriek like a harpy instead. Or was that supposed to be your terrifying war bellow?"
"Please," Gwaine said, with dignity, "banshee. Not harpy."
(They hadn't met the harpies yet. If they had, Gwaine might not have minded the comparison. Harpies have truly bloodcurdling shrieks.)
The stranger snorted. Apparently satisfied with the restored shininess of his sword, he returned it to its scabbard and proffered a hand to Gwaine. "Lancelot."
"Another of Princess Gwen's hopeless swains, apparently," Gwaine said, raising a critical eyebrow. "At least her taste's improved since. Gwaine."
They shook on it, surreptitiously testing each other's grip in the way of all errant not-quite-knights who share a fondness for the same woman. It hurt.
"Princess?" Lancelot inquired. There was an edge to his voice not dissimilar to that of his blade.
"Not literally," Gwaine said, dropping Lancelot's hand with a wince. No bones broken, as far as he could tell. "Only the princess of my heart! And possibly of Arthur's. But mostly of mine."
"I saw her first," Lancelot replied mildly. "Get in line."
They wound up traveling together mostly by default, and because two swords were eminently better than one, what with bandits roving the roads and all. Also Mercian soldiers, who took a strong disliking to Lancelot for some reason. Gwaine enjoyed that little rout tremendously.
"You're sticking close, you are," he shouted, gleefully hacking away at a particularly snotty Mercian knight. "I haven't had this much fun since Merlin pissed off those would-be sorcerers!"
"Did he blast them into bits with blue lightning?" Lancelot shouted back, sounding vaguely intrigued. "Or was it cunningly displaced crockery again?"
"Er," Lancelot said. "You never heard that."
"The crown prince of Camelot's personal manservant is a sorcerer?"
"No, seriously," Lancelot gritted out, slashing at another Mercian with unwarranted savagery, "we need to work on your selective deafness."
In addition to attracting the most entertaining enemies, Lancelot apparently knew all the best gossip. Gwaine was never letting this one out of his sight.
Through a complicated system of trial and error and rampaging villagers, they eventually developed a set of ground rules for their informal partnership:
- The amount of coin in your purse must be greater than or equal to the price of the ale you intend to purchase.
- Lancelot's purse is not "the communal purse."
"See, you're proof, aren't you," Gwaine said feelingly. "Because you haven't a lordly bone in your body. You're peasant stock through and through. No one above a village squire in your entire lineage, is there? But you're the most noble man I've ever met. Noble noble, not birthright noble. You save kittens and rebuild villages between hacking the heads off various forms of villainy. You're proof positive that who you're born doesn't matter, it's the man you make of yourself that does."
"Er," Lancelot said, eyes wide. "I mean. Thanks. That's very kind of you."
And then –
"Oh, God, there was a whole barrel of wine here not five minutes ago, who exactly do you think is going to pay for this?"
"Noble Lancelot," Gwaine slurred. "So noble."
- Not all noblemen are evil overlords.
- Having a scarred face does not make someone an evil overlord.
- If someone can conclusively be proven to be an evil overlord, both parties should be consulted, or at least warned, before revolution is instigated.
"If you're plotting to overthrow governments without asking for my input, you can bloody well clean the mess up yourself," Gwaine could be heard to say, from deep within the barricaded bowels of the castle's wine cellar.
"I'm liberating a fiefdom," Lancelot protested.
"And I'm liberating a truly excellent vintage," Gwaine said agreeably. "Cheers."
- No accepting challenges from mysterious green-clad strangers whilst intoxicated.
"It was a sucker bet! I cut off his head!" Gwaine protested. "How was I to know he'd just tuck it under his arm and be off again?"
"That doesn't justify the subsequent incident with his wife's girdle," Lancelot retorted darkly.
- Furthermore, a drunken dare does not constitute a legitimate challenge.
- Not even if he insults your mother.
- Not even if he insults the lady Guinevere.
In fairness, they've both been guilty of that one.
"She's just so…" Lancelot sighed, well into his cups after a long week's liberating and bandit-slaying. The villagers in this little hamlet had been very grateful to be rid of that miserable band of thieves. Gwaine heartily approved of the villagers' gratitude, as it gave them both free reign of the local tavern's best brews all night.
"She is at that," Gwaine murmured, eying the fantastically well-endowed barmaid contemplatively. She shot a sidelong glance his way and giggled, her cheeks – and the pale rise of her breasts – flushing an endearing shade of pink.
"So…" Lancelot repeated. His adjectives were clearly failing him tonight. "Sweet," he finally managed. "And good, and true, and brave…"
"Her dusky skin is smooth as silk," Lancelot confided.
"Oh," Gwaine said. "Oh. Gwen. Yes. She's a gorgeous creature, perfect, really."
"Her lips are like rose petals, steeped in wine."
"All of this is true," Gwaine agreed. He leaned forward, intent and serious. "But more importantly, did you see the barmaid's tits."
Lancelot sighed. He had the righteously long-suffering sigh down pat. He'd probably been taking lessons from angsty nobles in his off hours.
Gwaine waited him out.
"My love for Guinevere is true and pure," Lancelot reminded him.
Gwaine continued to wait.
"She is a paragon of womanhood against whom no other female deserves to be judged."
Gwaine took a slow, patient sip of his ale.
"…and yes, that barmaid has a truly spectacular bosom."
"Is what I'm saying," Gwaine said triumphantly.
What people like Merlin and Arthur seem to forget is, there's a whole lot of world beyond the reaches of Camelot.
What people like Gwaine and Lancelot try to ignore is, there's still no place like home.
But that's just soppy nonsense, really, and there are far more opportunities for not-quite-knights to prove themselves in the wild yonder than within one little kingdom's borders.
"A hydra," Gwaine said blankly. "In Suffolk. You have got to be kidding me."
Lancelot really wasn't.
That one was particularly tricky, and they still weren't sure that all the heads had been accounted for in the end. But considering that between them they only had two swords, a smallish assortment of daggers, a bag of flamewort, and a torch – well, they did all right for themselves.
"That would've been a lot easier with Merlin's sorcery," Lancelot groaned, cauterizing his own flesh wound.
Gwaine grinned. "Yeah, but way less fun."
And apparently there was decent coin in the freelance hero business. Who knew?
Morgause tried to seduce them once. Both of them. Together.
She made a fairly compelling argument.
Until she got to the part where she wanted Arthur dead and Morgana her puppet queen on the throne of Camelot. The restoring magic to the land, that part neither of them objected to. The restoring Arthur's body to the land was rather more problematic. Also, Morgause's plot rested on using one or both of them to seduce Guinevere. Which was all fine and dandy in the abstract, but even Gwaine had his scruples in this particular case.
"She's going to use Gwen as bait for Arthur," Gwaine panted, as they made good their escape. "We've got to warn them!"
"Right, and what part of Uther's favored ward is trying to murder him and her beloved foster-brother do you expect to get across before you're executed for returning to Camelot in the first place?" Lancelot demanded, exasperated.
Fortunately, Morgause had the convenient habit of leaving her scrying crystal around in a courtyard where any desperately escaping knight-errant might stumble across it. Literally, in Gwaine's case.
Neither of them knew a lick of magic, but apparently it was an open link. Morgause used it to spy on Uther's court, so Merlin used it to spy on Morgause.
He looked a bit startled to see Lancelot's face in the crystal instead, but the issue of what the hell Lancelot was doing with Morgause was temporarily tabled in favor of the issue of imminent doom and destruction. Merlin picked up the gist of the plot right quick. (Apparently he was used to this sort of thing.) The last either Gwaine or Lancelot saw through the crystal was Guinevere's face in the doorway of an empty chamber.
She didn't see Merlin's crystal, or them, at all.
But by God, she was still beautiful.
They never really heard the end of that story, what with being rather occupied running for their lives from a vengeful sorceress, but nor did they hear any rumors of Arthur's death emerging out of Camelot. So that was that sorted.
One might assume that of the two of them, Gwaine was generally the one responsible for stirring up trouble. This would not be a faulty assumption. However, it must be stated: when Lancelot got one of his notions, the consequences were truly epic.
"All I'm saying is," Gwaine remarked afterward, "I don't care what they're calling it these days, a cup is a cup is a bloody cup. And I'm reminding you of this next time you get it in your head to haul us halfway across the known world in search of one."
- No epic quests.
– was thereafter added to The Rules.
And furthermore, the incident with the Vestal Virgins was all Lancelot's fault. That plonker.
"The thing is," Gwaine gasped, "that Arthur – he's good. I mean, he's really good. And one day, he's going to be great. And that's something worth dying for."
"Not if you die before then, you utter git," Lancelot snapped. His face was very grey. He tightened the makeshift bandage painfully around Gwaine's thigh, hands wet with blood.
Whatever, it was just a sea snake. A magical sea snake, but still. Sea snakes totally weren't worth dying for. And Gwaine didn't.
He did give Lancelot his full share of the reward afterward, though. Lancelot tried to refuse, all noble and righteous and furious and maybe just a little bit frightened, but Gwaine snuck the coin in Lancelot's purse as he slept at the inn that night.
Lancelot's was the communal purse, after all.
(If anyone's still wondering about the incident with the harpies: basically, the harpies had even less interest in crossing the Mercian border than Gwaine or Lancelot, and dispersed accordingly. No one would ever bother composing an epic ballad about that time their enemies got bored and flew away.
The shit they stirred up as a direct result of leading harpies to that border is another story entirely. Cendred was pissed.)
And then one day word came from Camelot that Uther Pendragon was dead.
If you were there, it was kind of a huge deal. There was sorcery and betrayal and massive destruction of property involved. Merlin probably played a pretty big role in the whole mess, as he was wont to do. Epic ballads would be sung about the entire business.
But if you weren't there, well, it was rather anticlimactic.
"So Arthur's king now," Lancelot said. "Huh."
Gwaine blinked into his tankard. "Huh," he agreed.
The silence hung awkwardly around them.
"Do you figure he's married Gwen yet?" Gwaine finally ventured.
Lancelot sighed. "I would never stand between a good lady and her king."
"Right," Gwaine said thoughtfully. "I totally would, though."
They eyed each other warily for a long moment's consideration. After all, there was a king's favor at stake. But on the other hand, the heart of a beautiful woman. But on the other other hand, a solid fifty-league journey to the gates of Camelot.
The destinies of great nations have hung upon far less.
"Race you," Lancelot suggested.
Gwaine was already halfway into the saddle.
They weren't sure whose turn it was to pay for the ale, but neither of them had the coin anyway. Besides, they agreed, the angry villagers at their heels added a certain spice to the chase.