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Love, Give, Forgive

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Gwen wouldn't have chosen the task of tending to the sick king, the man who is responsible for her father's death, but she knows that Arthur means to honour her by entrusting his father's care to her.

Years of service have taught her how to fluff pillows and change bedlinen in relative silence. She glides about the king's chambers like a ghost, unseeing and unseen as a servant must be. She feels less, now, than when she served Morgana, to whom she was a confidante as well as a maid. Smoothing Uther's shirts, all the same starched white, holds none of the same appeal as selecting Morgana's beautiful outfits, braiding her hair. She is nobody, to him.

At first that suits her very well. She does not wish for him to notice her. Uther's notice does not bode well, for the lowly. He has brought her family nothing but harm in times past. She solicits his comfort and ease as her duties as nursemaid demand, but she does not seek to please him the way she did Morgana.

As time passes, however, her hate fades into pity. What is this man, now, broken and lonely? They have more in common than she wanted at first to admit – both out of place, here, both betrayed by one they both loved. Both languish in these draughty rooms, waiting for Arthur to visit. Arthur, who is so busy with his responsibilities to the kingdom. Gwen catches glimpses of him, sometimes, in the courtyard, mounting his horse to ride out on some mission or other or returning, either triumphant or shrouded in gloom. Merlin is the one constant, Arthur's faithful companion. Gwen envies him both his freedom and his servitude. To leave these castle walls, to ride out at Arthur's side, to be the one to care for and comfort him at the end of the day. She thinks Arthur has no need of a wife, while he has Merlin.

Uther cries out in his sleep. Gwen does not know what dreams plague him, but she hears Morgana's name on his lips, a frightened whisper, and she smooths a hand over his brow, whispering comforting nonsense, the way she always soothed Morgana when she had one of her nightmares. It's instinctive, she does not mean to do it, and frowns at her own hand in something like distrust when he is still once more.

The first time he mistakes her for Igraine, she's horrified.

His eyes flicker open as she walks by, preparing to blow out the candle at his bedside. She sucks in a startled breath as he fixes her with a piercing stare – bright with an affection which is so alien she can't help but be disconcerted.

"Igraine, my love," he says, and reaches out to her. Gwen is frozen in place, unable to move as his fingers wrap around her wrist. She thinks she can feel her pulse thumping under the swipe of his thumb and shivers violently. Gwen knows that she does not resemble the late queen in anyway and she doesn't know which is more awful, Uther's madness or his love.

"I'm sorry, sire, you are mistaken," she says firmly, withdrawing her arm from his grasp and all but fleeing from the room, her skin crawling.

She's wary, when she returns the next morning, but there are no traces of the delusion which possessed him the night before. He is sitting up in bed, lucid and more like his old self than she has seen him in months. He looks down his nose at her, imperious and impersonal, and demands to see Arthur. She's oddly relieved by this display of royal privilege and almost smiles as she assures him she will send a guard right away. She knows she cannot promise to deliver Arthur to him; Arthur is not hers to command, and any illusions she might have had that love might make him declare himself so have long since receded.

Arthur comes, though, and sits with his father for a long while, while Gwen sits in the corner mending Uther's shirts. Arthur frowns at her as he turns to leave and tells her she needn't do that.

"But I must, sire," is all that she says, jaw firm, and he relents with a nod, happy to defer to her sense of how things should be, as always. She must have some employment, she will not be his mistress and cannot yet be his wife, if she ever will. He kisses her hand but does not linger, and she sighs to herself as she resumes her work.

 

Uther's condition deteriorates. He thrashes in his sleep and moans, reels off lists of names and crimes in scathing terms, ordering dreadful punishments for imaginary crimes. Gwen is always ready with a damp cloth for his brow and a soothing word or two. He's ordered her own death for sorcery more than once, but she takes it in her stride. It's worse because it's not like this all the time. He has periods of lucidity when he will discuss battle tactics or grain storage or siege provisions in the most reasonable of terms. He expresses love for his son, which makes Arthur bow his head and bite his lip. He even thanks Gwen on occasion, for small things she has done for him.

As spring approaches, small yellow flowers grow in the grass by the well. One day, on a whim, Gwen picks some, as she always used to do for Morgana, and, finding a small glass vase to arrange them in, places them on the windowsill in Uther's room. If he notices them, he doesn't remark on it.

Two nights after that, he mistakes her for Igraine again.

"You are here," he says, and she knows it is not her he is seeing.

"Yes, my lord," she says, and her voice cracks with pity as he smiles. She doesn't think she has ever seen him so at peace, and she finds she cannot begrudge him this small comfort, whatever he has done.

"Come, sit by me," he says, beckoning her closer. Gwen hesitates, but decides it can do no harm. She sits, cautiously, on the side of the bed. He takes her hand in his and it doesn't disgust her, not this time, even when he raises it to his chapped lips. "I have missed you, my dear," he says, and she sees that his eyes are wet.

"And I you," she replies.

"Igraine, I fear I have – I do not know that I have been the man you would wish me to be," he says, voice cracking and Gwen's heart seizes.

"Hush," she bids him, "I forgive you." She doesn't know whether she is speaking as Igraine or herself. It seems a small thing, after all, to offer forgiveness to a broken man. He heaves in a breath and makes a low noise. His shoulders shake and she realises that he is sobbing. Without thinking, she gathers him into her arms and lets him rest his head against her breast. She strokes his hair as he cries and murmurs, "Hush, my love, hush."

Gwen doesn't know how long they sit there in this strange embrace, but gradually he quietens, and she helps him to lie back against the pillow. His eyes search hers, entreating, and it's not difficult to lean across and brush her lips against his in benediction. It's a real kiss, soft and searching, and when she draws back Gwen finds her cheeks are wet with tears.

Uther looks at her, his eyes suddenly clear, and Gwen holds her breath, waiting for some kind of recrimination, but his eyes flutter close as he whispers

"Thank you."