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The Opposite of Work

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Even with Morgana's protests, this is Gwen's favourite time of day, when the two of them sit together, in good company and the afternoon sun, working and unworking the future.

There isn't a need for a mantle or a tapestry so much as a need for the king's ward to be seen bent over it, working diligently. "A few more minutes and we're stopping," says Morgana. "My fingers are stiff and my eyes can't make out one thread from the next."

"Sure," says Gwen, "the light's going anyway." Gwen's enjoying resting her feet, but of course women who aren't used to scrubbing or smithing or standing still for hours can complain that needlework is painful. Gwen notices but she doesn't resent it, doesn't point it out. "It'll be time to get ready for the feast soon," she says instead, and that begins a conversation about dresses and putting on a show, which leads to a conversation about visiting nobles, which keeps them in place long enough for two more such nobles and even Uther himself to pass by, see them working, and nod approvingly. Fortunately, none of them comes close enough to hear how Morgana mocks them in between slack stitches and sweet smiles.

Fortunately, no one cares that Morgana's needlework is of poor quality. She's never had the patience to copy the patterns that were supposed to teach her the technique. The scenes she composes on her own are rough and haphazard, and if Gwen didn't know Morgana and her dreams so well she might not recognise which burst of orange and red is a dragon's fury, a witch's death, or the afternoon sun. In one panel there's a wedding, in the next a war, a man with a crown standing alone, a woman sinking into a lake.

Fortunately, they pay even less attention to Gwen, so she uses her afternoons at Morgana's side to unravel Morgana's work. There's a pleasure to it, finding the thread on the other side of the cloth and knowing just the right place to tug with her fingers or a needle or hook. When the knot won't give, there's a sharper pleasure in cutting through it with a knife.

When Gwen was a girl, her mother told her an old story of a wife whose husband went off to war. The war was won but they thought the hero lost, and the men lined up at her door, wanting her to marry again. She said she'd choose one of them when she finished weaving a shroud, but every night she stayed up to unravel what she'd done during the day.

If she'd had a faithful servant like Gwen she could have saved herself the trouble and slept through the night. That is, if she didn't have nightmares.

She doesn't think of it as destruction so much as preservation. Keeping the dowry unfinished and marriage far off, keeping them together. All three of them, she used to think, when Arthur made fun and Morgana challenged him to use a needle as well as she and Gwen knew how to use a sword. All four of them, she thinks now, when Merlin looks quizzically at the mess of threads in Gwen's lap but says nothing.

Morgana will still be able to marry Arthur – surely no dowry is needed for that, no transactions, no move, no leaving her maidservant or his man behind to travel to another castle and kingdom.

Maybe it was childish, the kind of story a mother told before she died and left you alone, the kind of story you kept on believing in, stubbornly, because you didn't want anyone else to leave you. Gwen's father is gone now. Not travelling, not lost, but well and truly gone. And if Morgana goes too she'll have no one, nowhere, nothing to go back to. Maybe it doesn't make any difference what she does now, but this is the custom they've settled on, and Gwen doesn't want it to change.

"Enough," Morgana declares. "Let's go, Gwen, we've put on a good show for today. On to the next scene."

Gwen grins as she cuts through the last of her knots and then gathers up what's left of her work: a plain white cloth and a dozen loose threads to be worked together again tomorrow.