Today, Gwen thinks, today I would have died. Usually, Gwen is not one for brooding. There is always too much work to be done, and besides, you might miss what joys life can offer you if you think too much about the slights. Stare into the distance, wondering about a feast, and you don't notice the solid bread right in front of you, that was the sensible way of handling things.
But today she would have died, burned as a witch, and she just can't not think about that. The king usually orders magic users beheaded. Burnings are for the worst of the lot, those witches and warlocks who haven't just performed spells but have slaughtered indiscriminantly. Well, that was what the king assumed Gwen had done, causing the plague, so maybe she shouldn't feel as she does now. After all, she is alive. Merlin found the real culprit, Arthur killed the monster that had caused the plague, and then the king let her go. Maybe she should just be grateful for being alive and take that free day Morgana has given her to spend with her father, who is still shakin while he holds her in his arms.
But the king would have burned her alive, even though she was innocent. Her protestations did not mean anything to him, nor did he listen to anyone else pleading her cause. Her years of service to his ward had not mattered. She is alive now, yes, but not because of Uther. And if he could be wrong about Gwen's guilt or innocence, then he could have been about any of the many, many people who died for their allegiance to magic.
Gwen has grown up in Camelot. There are certainties she has never doubted before; the king is the king, his word is law, and magic is evil. The king is harsh, but fair. They owe him their service, and he will protect them from all dangers within and without the realm. Her father's hand in hers, she walks from the castle to the lower town, and crossing the square where the stake would have been, she feels sick. Maybe it is because she imagines what it would have been like, the flames eating her flesh, before she can banish the image. Maybe it is because she remembers all the executions that were not stopped, and can't help but wonder how many of the people who died were really guilty. And maybe because she now has to wonder what she should do with all these thoughts if she cannot put them away for good.
"If you had to," Merlin asks her at the feast in celebration of Lancelot's knighting, "Lancelot or Arthur, which one?" They're both slightly drunk with ale and the joy of having helped Lancelot succeed, but Merlin being Merlin, Gwen suspects he'd ask even if they didn't have that excuse. They both sometimes let words run out of their mouths that really should have stayed thoroughly restrained and reordered into some kind of sensible shape, only Gwen feels embarrassed by this and Merlin, as far as she can tell, never does. Right now, he's looking over to Arthur and Lancelot who are glancing in their direction, and she hastily says neither is her type.
She's lying, of course. Lancelot is like something out of a dream come true, good, kind, brave, without any of the arrogance Arthur and his knights show so often; he's beautiful, and she enjoyed measuring him up for a nobleman's clothing far more than she should. He's humble without having given up on his dreams; he is not nobility and has just proven he's as good as any of them. Whereas Arthur is not someone she'd dream about at all. She has watched him bicker with Morgana too often for that, has seen him being rude and overbearing to just about everyone, and besides, he's as familiar as the worn out steps of the castle stairs. And he's probably going to marry Morgana any way because while marrying her off to win an ally would be to Uther's advantage, the king will never let her go. In truth, Gwen has sometimes pitied Morgana because of this. Not that Arthur is completely horrible, but it must feel like marrying your younger brother, whose annoying habits irritate you since childhood.
Merlin, who had called Arthur a prat the first time he saw him and still does, hasn't stopped glancing over to him and Lancelot, though, eyes wandering up and down, and Gwen has a good mind to return his own question to him. She isn't quite drunk enough for this, though. One couldn't entirely blame Merlin, she supposes, because Arthur has saved his life recently, facing monsters, magic and the king's wrath. There is this about Arthur; you could count on him fulfilling debts of honour to servants as much as to fellow knights. Morgana has told Gwen that Arthur had spoken on Gwen's behalf to Uther when the king had ordered her dead, not because Arthur had believed her innocent but because he argued that using magic to save her father's life should not be treated the same way a deed of malice was.
There is something there, some idea of justice beyond a king's whim, and yet a good thing for a prince to believe in. She feels too light hearted to think it through right now, but she looks over at Arthur and thinks he might not be her type but could be her king.
And while he's not as beautiful as Lancelot, he's really not hard on the eyes either.
There is a rage in Morgana's eyes that does not leave room for much else. Gwen doesn't feel comforted by it, she feels suffocated, and guilty, because she knows Morgana's rage is on her behalf. But Gwen's father is dead, and she cannot permit her own grief and rage, because she's afraid for Morgana. Time was that she was sure the king would never hurt Morgana, but not anymore. And she does not want to lose Morgana as well. So she has to force herself to be calm. If Gwen breaks down and cries to the heavens for her dead father as she wants to, Morgana will do something to Uther, Gwen is sure of it, and this time Uther might respond with more than locking Morgana in a dungeon.
Merlin asks Gwen whether she wants Uther dead, and she doesn't lie when she says she'd feel nothing, nothing at all, if Uther died. She has made herself hollow and carved out what feels, or it would hurt too much. She'll never see her father again, never hear his voice teaching her about different types of steel because he has no son, never feel his arms around her after another tiring day at the castle. He was gone, gone, gone, and in a month, Uther might not even remember his name anymore. There is no way you could make a man like that understand what he has done. If she killed Uther, he would only feel even more justified in his actions even as he drew his last breath, and there would be no regret at all for the man he had ordered killed as easily as he had ordered Gwen's own death. And her father would still be dead.
When Arthur seeks her out, the rage Gwen has taken and locked away threatens to flow back into her at the sight of him. Because he's not Uther, and he does know better. Because he had helped Morgana save the druid boy directly against his father's orders only last month. Because she has seen him fight for a village outside of Camelot's borders. Because in Ealdor, she had spoken to him for the first time not as a servant, and he hadn't ignored or dismissed her but acknowledged the truth of her words and listened to her. She tries to tell herself it is stupid, but a huge part of her thinks he should have defied the king and saved her father. Maybe it would not have done any good. Maybe he'd have joined Morgana in the dungeons for the night. Maybe there is absolutely no justification for her to feel this way, for Morgana is her friend as well as her lady, whereas Arthur is simply her liege lord. And yet, and yet, and yet.
Arthur doesn't try to comfort her, as Merlin has done. He doesn't rage on her behalf the way Morgana does. What he does is tell her that her house is hers for life, and so is her job, if she wants it. It is only then that she remembers what happens to families of traitors; they lose their property, and are forever tainted by the association.
They look at each other, and the truth that he arrested her father on his father's orders is between them as clear as day. She understands this is not an attempt to buy forgiveness. It is simply what he thinks he owes her, and he gives it without embellishments, or attempts to make this about himself.
He leaves again, and the sense of suffocation in her lessens a bit. She'll return to her house, and wait in vain for her father's footsteps, night after night, and the grief for him will be hers, unmingled with what lay in Morgana's outbursts or Merlin's questions.
There will be a future. She just has to figure out a way to live in it.
Gwen does not know why Lancelot left the way he did, telling Merlin "some things are not meant to be". It's not what you expect a man to do after mutual declarations of love, to put it mildly, and maybe Arthur isn't the only man managing to be both a hero and an idiot after all. She feels like a bit of a fool herself. If she had not twisted her ankle, she would have escaped with Morgana, and none of this would have happened. Arthur and Merlin would not have had to risk their lives to rescue her. Lancelot nearly lost his because of her. And now he's gone again, just like a creature out of a fairy tale, someone who enchants you but is no more substantial than a trick of the light when the morning sun rises.
She doesn't know what she expected. After all, Uther's decree banishing Lancelot from Camelot has not been lifted. And if he had asked her to come with him, she would not, could not have said yes. There is Morgana to come home to, and – well, all her other friends. But she would have liked to be asked.
Arthur hasn't said a word to her since he saved her life, again, and she doesn't know whether she's grateful for this or angry with him as well. He just rides at her side in silence. It leaves her and Merlin talking about Hengist and his horrible pets which have hopefully eaten him now, about Morgana's nightmares and how they seem to get worse, about how this second attempt to kidnap Morgana within weeks will mean Uther won't permit her to leave the castle again any time soon. It feels good to talk about such things, even to worry about Morgana, with Merlin trying to make her laugh. This is what her life should be. Not to dream about impossibilities, by which she does not mean Lancelot.
If Arthur had not stayed at her house, alternating between being infuriating and being endearing, she would never have started to, she's sure of it. Gwen has always known better than to fall for Arthur, of all people. She still does. She can't be in love with him, not really. Even if he were not the crown prince, because he is still the same Arthur, whose flashes of humility are as rare as snowfall in summer. And who cannot tell her he came to rescue her against his father's command because he values her life, hiding instead behind some muttered explanation about Morgana urging him onwards. Really, if Merlin would ask her his old question right now, she'd tell him to take Lancelot and Arthur both, and good riddance.
Her nose itches, and she scratches it, noting, not for the first time, that all three of them stink terribly. She'll go to the kitchens as soon as they get back and prepare some hot water, because you can't trust stupid men to do that, not even Merlin who has switched from talking to her to arguing with Arthur about whose fault it is that they didn't bring three horses along instead of two to begin with.
Hot water, and something to eat. She couldn't bring herself to in Hengist's cell, and she's willing to bet the idiot boys haven't, either. Some fresh food, and she'll get Morgana's dress she's wearing cleaned, too, because it would be a pity to throw it away, dirty as it is. Morgana looks so beautiful in it. Morgana will be waiting for her to come home, and suddenly it hits Gwen she's alive, truly alive on a day another king has ordered her execution. Alive and free, with a home to return to and people she loves. Maybe some of them do stupid and bewildering things sometimes, and maybe Gwen herself does, but it is good to have them, all the same.
"Guinevere?" Arthur asks, in an uncertain tone and that way he has of using her full name when hardly anyone else does, and she realizes she's smiling. Apparently, this disconcerts him, as he's finally talking to her again.
"I just understood something," she says. "What a good thing it can be to be alive, you know? I mean, not that it ever isn't. That's not what I mean. Just that today it's really good."
She's babbling again, something she hasn't done in a good while. Merlin smiles at her. Arthur at first looks bewildered, but then the corners of his mouth twitch, and she recognizes something of her own feeling in his eyes as well.
"It is," he agrees.
There is a game among the castle staff now. If you feel especially rotten, especially if the king or his orders are the cause of your unhappiness, think of him wedding and bedding a troll and figure out a way to make a reference to the late Queen Katrina as innocently as possible, then watch his face. It will cheer you up to no end. Gwen might or might not have started the game.
In truth, though, the whole Troll episode is only funny afterwards, and wasn't at all while it happened. Gwen had been horrified when Uther had ordered the additional taxes, and so glad when Arthur disobeyed and returned the money to the people. Of course Uther had been under a spell, but he is bad enough when he's simply being himself, as Gwen had good reason to know.
The people taxed first hadn't been friends of hers, let alone family. She knows some of their names, the way you do of people you meet in the town where you have spent most of your life, but not all. But that has not lessened her horror and outrage. Because it was unjust, and because these are her people. They are a part of what makes her home. They deserve better.
None of these thoughts as such are new to Gwen, but the way they mix and mingle, like hot metal flowing into a new, untried form, that way is different from before. Because what she concludes is this: as the people of Camelot are her people, no matter whether or not she counts them as friends, she is responsible for them. She can't just sit by and lament when there is yet another injustice being done. It won't do, either, to be bashful about having friends in high places because she has yet to work out what precisely Arthur is to her, or she to him. He has proven he listens to her, and that is both gift and responsibility. He has also proven he can stand up to Uther. Maybe it will be a while yet before he becomes king, but the rest of Uther's reign does not need to be the same way as it has been until now.
Her first test comes when the king calls the Witchfinder to Camelot, and all of her and Merlin's efforts to prove the man a liar are in vain. It's Gaius' life at stake, and then everyone else's lives, for the Witchfinder won't stop. So Gwen goes to Arthur and asks him, point blank, if he wants to be responsible for the death of another innocent. She makes herself speak her father's name, and it feels like hammering a sword into shape.
It's not like I want to strike you with it, she thinks, looking at Arthur, with fire and wood and the promise of burning flesh and death cries around them. I want you to take this and act on it. I want you to be who you need to be for all of us.
When he gives the order, she doesn't breathe out in relief, not when there is so much work still to do. For her as well as for him. But she feels as if they have started, and this is so much it almost makes her giddy until she remembers that the Witchfinder is not yet completely defeated, nor future unjust orders by the king denied.
On the way to the throne room to confront the king, Gwen finds herself wishing she could kiss Arthur again, and because right now, anything seems possible, even this could be, too.