Gwen doesn't remember the Queen's funeral -- she was too young, and does not even remember her own mother's death, which happened almost a year later. But her father described the royal funeral often, the procession of the grieving king and the infant prince, still swaddled in the arms of his nursemaid; the almost indecent pomp and circumstance of it. "He wanted them to know how much he loved her," her father said. "As if you can prove that with gold and finery."
Her father never held for such things; he approved of Gwen's position because it meant that she worked indoors most of the day and she had a comfortable bed. But he never looked at the new dress that Morgana had given her or the shoes she had bought with her very own wages; he just looked at her, and smiled.
He would not have minded this small, mean funeral, the mud and the grey clouds, the way the hole is clearly too shallow. Gwen does, but her father was executed as a traitor, and traitors get neither pomp nor circumstance. Arthur probably went to great lengths, she thinks distantly, to arrange even this much. Traitors are usually decapitated, their bodies burned and their heads left to rot, nailed to the gates of the outer wall.
Arthur, of course, isn't here. Nor is Morgana -- she begged Gwen to be permitted to go, as though Gwen's permission mattered, but when Gwen said "no, please," Morgana nodded, and wrapped her fragile arms around Gwen's shoulders, and Gwen was too busy breathing in the comforting smell of Morgana's terrible egg-and-fig shampoo to marvel at the idea that "no, please" meant anything at all to someone in the Pendragon family.
Merlin is standing awkwardly by her side, a little behind her, trying not to fidget. She wants to tease him, tell him that she told him to bring his cloak and warm boots, but he didn't listen and if Gaius has to treat him for a cold this week, it will be his fault and no one else's. But she can't tease, can't move, can't do anything but watch as the linen shroud and its sad contents are rolled into the hole by indifferent soldiers.
"Gwen," Merlin says quietly. "Gwen, you should -- we should go."
She knows that he's saying this because he's worried, because he doesn't want her to punish herself with these images. But he's wrong; she's not punishing herself.
Morgana knows that she should've expected it -- should know that after giving so much of yourself, losing so much of yourself, that one day you'll be left with too little to live on. She should have seen Gwen's face that morning and known that this would happen.
But she still says, "You don't have to go. Please. Gwen, Guinevere, please. Don't just leave--"
"I have to, my lady," Gwen says, soft and sweet the way she always sounds. Her voice hasn't changed, at least, even if everything else has. "I can't live here any longer -- not in this castle, not in Camelot."
"But it's your home, Gwen. I know that -- I know why you would leave. But surely we can do something?"
Instead of answering, Gwen moves to the wardrobe, where Morgana's chainmail and sword are kept secret and safe behind silly dresses. She does not open it, though; merely rests her palm on the door for a long moment. "What would you do, Morgana?" she asks. "In a kingdom where your strength has to be hidden away, where you have dreams that no one will explain, where everything you do is wrong because it is you who does it -- what would you do to make this right?"
Morgana opens her mouth to answer, but finds nothing in her throat. Gwen smiles, brief and insincere but the first smile since her father's murder, and she pauses on her way out the door, touching Morgana gently on the cheek.
"You are the best of what I will leave," she says, "And the only one I will regret. Be well. Be safe."
Morgana closes her eyes and feels the press of lips against hers. She feels it still, long after the door has closed and Gwen has gone.
There is an old man in Gwen's mother's village who remembers her family (although he also remembers a time when fairies roamed the forests beyond the village walls) and his memory is enough to allow Gwen a refuge of sorts. She works at the smithy, repairing leather and doing the work that is deemed "too fiddly" for a clumsy boy's hands, and she is asked no questions about her past. It is strange to be amongst people who have so little curiosity, but perhaps it was Camelot that was strange.
As soon as the harsh winter is over, however, Gwen moves on, an elderly horse named Horace under her and the wide sky above. She is afraid, most of the time -- afraid of bandits, afraid of hunger -- but the fear is a kind of companion, too. She rides further and further away, meeting people whose speech fits strangely in her mouth, who talk to her with gestures and smiles and occasional shouts and scowls. There is work, always, and bread and shelter for payment.
She is accosted twice; one man steals her money, one man tries to ravish her. She fashions a new bag out of some old leather, but she kills the man who forced her to the ground, slices him open from neck to navel and throws up as he bleeds to death.
Morgana's new chambermaid is old and thin like the whippets her father used to raise. Morgana hates her, hates the way she grunts to herself and the way she doesn't smile and the way she never tells Morgana to do something for herself. She's constantly underfoot, what's more, and it's a nuisance to try to get anything done when one is always tripping over a servant.
It's a nuisance, right up until the night Morgana goes down to see Giaus for another sleeping draught and sees her chambermaid slip through the door.
Arthur always hated the way Morgana would snoop as though it were her right to know, but it is a skill she has and will use, so she ignores the part of her conscience that sounds just like Arthur and tsks disapprovingly at her as she creeps down the last few stairs and stands close to the door, listening carefully.
"... quite unmanageable one day," her chambermaid says. "And I think she's been taking too much of your draught. She's got a taste for it."
"What else?" Gaius says. "Has she been dreaming anymore?"
The chambermaid doesn't say anything, but Morgana guesses she shrugged, since her next words are, "And what would she dream about? Gold and riches when she's the queen proper of Camelot?"
"I see. Thank you, you have been very instructive," Gaius says. Morgana hides herself out of sight as her chambermaid blows past.
She takes care to always get more sleeping draught on a regular basis, and takes equal care to tip the contents of the bottle down the privvy chute. She wonders if her plans ought to include Gaius, if something in him has become so corrupted by Uther's madness that he should die, too.
But in the end, she spares Gaius. Spares him on condition that he tells her the truth.
Gwen meets a young man who only talks when the sun is shining; his name is John and he has a limp that he will not explain at any time of day. They travel together, easy and quiet the way Gwen has never been, and one night he reaches for her and breathes her name into her hair, almost too quiet to catch.
They run into a group of children bullying an older girl, big and clumsy, who is cringing away from them. Gwen does not think about what it looks like when she charges forward on Horace and John follows her on Augustine, but later the girl (Annie, twenty years old in her body but only a child in her mind) calls them angels and asks them for news of her brother, dead since last winter.
By ones and twos, Gwen finds herself the caretaker to a strange and ever-growing collection of people, some old but most young, all lost and aimless and reeling from some pain that will not let them rest. As though their increasing number has some strange weight of its own, they travel more and more slowly, until one summer John sets up their camp in the shadow of a mountain and says, "Lady, I think we've found it."
Gwen doesn't ask what it is they've found; she smiles and agrees and sends out some people to find wood for the fires.
"You know, I think you're just making it up," Arthur observes.
Merlin barely shoots him a wearily amused expression before going back to his furrowed-brow concentration on the light in his palm. "Do you," he says flatly.
"I do," Arthur says. "I mean, there was twenty years of not allowing magic in the kingdom, followed by ten years of encouraging magic in the kingdom. But no one, I believe, has asked the important question, which is does magic even exist ?"
"Until you, with your superior wisdom and highly-honed intellect," Merlin says. "We have to turn east at the next crossroad," he adds, pitching his voice louder to the soldiers and knights riding behind them.
"Exactly, Merlin," Arthur says, approving. "Glad you could keep up."
"So this," Merlin says, waggling his fingers and making the light in his palm bounce up and down, "Just an illusion, then? Swamp gas, perhaps?"
"Perhaps," Arthur huffs. "It's possible."
"Oh, yes, quite possible."
They make up camp for the night a few hours later, despite Merlin's protests that they're "nearly there, why can't we just push on?"
"You've waited ten years to see Gwen again," Arthur points out. "We all have. Another night without her company will not be unbearable."
Merlin sighs and rolls over, their blanket tangled in his legs so that Arthur has to tug it loose again, spread it over them both. "I've missed her."
Arthur pulls him in closer. "I hope she's missed us," he murmurs into the back of Merlin's neck.
The next morning there is a young boy sitting cross-legged in the middle of their camp, next to the dying fire. The soldiers on guard make a production out of grabbing him roughly by the arms and hauling him to his feet, but it is his lack of fear that prompts them to notify Arthur and Merlin.
"He just appeared. Like some kind of a--" Rufus checks himself, his ruddy face going even redder. "I thought you would want to know, sir."
"Bring him in," Merlin says.
The boy looks curious, interested in everything around him; his eyes don't stop moving the entire time he stands in the doorway of the tent. "Hello," he says.
Arthur blinks. "Hello," he tries. "Who are you?"
"I am a friend of the mountain," is the puzzling response. "I could see you coming and I wanted a look. My mother does not like me to go off alone, but I knew you would not hurt me. But your soldiers are very rude."
"Yes, they are," Merlin agrees. Arthur frowns at him, then returns his frown to the boy.
"But what is your name, child?" he asks.
"Thomas," says the boy. "And you are Arthur. And you," he turns to Merlin, "Are Merlin. We have been expecting you."
"Damn that boy to hell and back," John says, trying and failing to put his gloves on properly. He was attacked by wolves three winters ago and lost two fingers on his left hand -- Gwen made him a special pair of gloves, but somehow he still forgets which one goes on which hand.
Gwen takes them away from him and holds them out, so that he can slide his hand in more easily. "I am sure he is safe. He said he wanted to watch the approach of the sun -- he's probably up at the peaks again, watching the sunrise. He'll be back in a few hours and you can yell at him then."
"He said it was coming from the North, Lady," John says. "The sun has not shifted in its course over the night, has it?"
Gwen shakes her head. "Nessa has taken the Trader's Road; if you ride up the North Road you will meet her just past the river. You will find him, he will be safe, and we will be sure to fashion some first-rate shackles for his wandering feet."
"Lady, my thanks to your hopes, but if I find him, he may not be entirely safe," John replies with a wry twist to his mouth.
He mounts his horse and is about to lead several companions out when there is a noise -- a sound that drops through Gwen like a knife down an empty hole.
"What the devil was that?" John asks. "Sounded like a trumpet."
"Not the devil," Gwen says.
The procession is lead by Arthur -- of course, she thinks stupidly, of course Arthur would be the one in front. Merlin is behind him and to one side, but the surprise is in Thomas, arms wrapped loose and trusting around Merlin's waist.
It's much more than a camp, more even than a village, although most of the dwellings are made of poles and tent fabric rather than wood and thatch. Arthur and Merlin pass by people who look at them with curiosity, but no fear.
A young man comes up to Merlin's horse, a scowl on his face. "Thomas," he says to the boy behind Merlin, "We have had words about your wanderings."
"I found the sun, Father," Thomas says from behind Merlin's shoulder. "His name is Merlin."
Arthur opens his mouth, then shuts it abruptly when a young woman, her hair bound in a loose braid and her clothes that of a smith, approaches them. The young man glances behind him and says, "Lady Guinevere, Thomas says the dark-haired one is named Merlin."
She nods, still dividing her stare equally between Merlin and Arthur. "Thomas is right. I bid you welcome, gentlemen of the North, to Carmelide."
Arthur seems frozen, but Merlin stumbles off his horse and embraces Gwen without further thought. Her body is as small as he remembers, sturdy under the stiff leather apron, and her hesitant hands settle at last around his shoulders.
"Gwen, I thought -- we've found you. At last."
"I wasn't lost, Merlin," she says.
The messenger comes one morning, weeks after Arthur and Merlin set off on their journey. Morgana wakes and finds an owl blinking at her from the foot of her bed.
She rolls her eyes and sits up. "So theatrical, Merlin," she mutters, but the owl just ruffles its feathers and gives a soft hooting sound. It lifts one scaly leg to her, a small leather pouch attached, and when she unties it the owl lifts off, lumbering through the air and out the window.
The pouch contains nothing but a voice, "We've found her," Merlin says, a smile likely on his face as he speaks. "We are coming home."
There is a great feast to welcome Gwen back -- it is fortunate, perhaps, that over the course of ten years she managed to establish her own fiefdom, because they can pretend the festivities are for visiting nobility and not for Morgana's best beloved friend. Jugglers and minstrels vie for attention, and at the central round table Arthur watches Morgana watch none of it, her gaze focused on the woman sitting next to her.
"But you do not need to go back right away," Morgana is saying, her hand just hovering above Gwen's shoulder, as if afraid that to touch her will render her no more substantial than smoke. "Your kingdom can spare you for a little while, I hope."
"It is not my kingdom," Gwen corrects her. "It is not anyone's kingdom. We are... not a kingdom," she finishes, lamely, and Arthur has to laugh at the resurrection of the same argument they'd had for a week before leaving Carmelide. Gwen had insisted that the fact that everyone called her Lady Guinevere and deferred to her in all things did not mean she was some kind of leader.
"Your home, then," Morgana says impatiently, and Gwen's face softens.
"My home has spared me for a good long while," she says, and Morgana looks almost ready to cry (she has not cried, not in all the years of Gwen's absence) until Gwen takes her hand and laces their fingers together. "It is time I came back."