Rating/Genre: PG-13 with some R-rated insinuations; angst, angst, angst and a touch of romance eventually.
Characters/Pairings: Arthur/Gwen, Morgana, Morgause, Merlin, Gaius, Uther, Odin, OC
Warnings/Spoilers: please see A/N for spoiler warning :)
Summary: There is already tension between Arthur and Gwen when it is discovered that Odin has a daughter, and he is willing to make peace with Camelot... On the condition that Arthur marries her.
Author's Note: This is byproduct of being a bit tipsy, on a long bus ride home at 2am when "The Winner Takes It All" decided to play angstily on shuffle reminding me of series 3 spec and spoilers. That said, this is loosely based on said spoilers and spec, but I don't really consider the fic itself speculation and so if you weren't aware of the spec/spoilers to begin with, you wouldn't be able to pick out the bits of the fic which were inspired by them. This was initially meant to focus on Arthur/Gwen and their experiences apart, but then something resembling a proper plot inserted itself into the mix and it greeew.
My everlasting thanks to the brilliant, ever generous imigination for her beta read of this, and for encouraging me to go where my brain leads, even if it means certain other things are sidelined in the process ♥♥♥
"I don't believe I'm asking for much," she says quietly, gently tugging her hands free of his hold. "A little less secrecy, or a little more distance between us."
Arthur looks down at his empty hands and frowns, confused and frustrated. "The way we are together is fine," he begins when he looks at her again. Gwen knows her face frowns in pity, and she feels a little guilty for it. "I don't know why anything has to change."
She wants to say, Because everything changes; it is a lesson that keeps repeating itself for them. Instead, she says, "I know this - us - we're only temporary -
"Guinevere," he interrupts, and looks so pained and angry that she sucks her bottom lip into her mouth and releases it slowly with a puff. "We are not some temporary dalliance."
Sighing, Gwen inclines her head, allowing him his belief because he keeps it so near to his heart, and she won't have that hurt. Not yet.
In added consolation, she slips her foot along his calf, strokes his heel and uses her big toe to draw circles around his ankle until the hard line of his shoulders eases, indicating he is more receptive once again. "Morgana believes I have a secret lover -
"You do," Arthur murmurs, smirking and somehow misinterpreting her words as an invitation, leaning forwards in an attempt to kiss her mouth. When she jerks back, he freezes, and the only consolation she offers him then is a warm hand pressed against his chest.
Gwen tosses her head, increasingly cross, and continues, "Allan has told me, time and again, that Joseph is intent on courting me, and I have to keep avoiding him because he doesn't realise that I'm ..."
"Off limits," Arthur says lowly, protectively, and while the tone had always previously warmed her, it only adds further cause to her annoyance now.
"He has no reason to think it," she persists, stubbornly.
Arthur leans away, then pushes himself up from the chair and paces to the opposite end of the room, toying with a dagger on his dining table. "What would you have me do, Guinevere? Wander Camelot's streets with you, hand-in-hand?"
He watches her as she licks her lips, unable to respond. Of course he can't do that, but there had to be some sort of reconciliation, a middle ground. Somewhere they could meet between them. Perhaps mere open friendship with the crown prince would be enough of a deterrent for some, though Gwen wonders if it may result in the opposite; she would become a magnet for every peasant keen on having the prince's ear.
She sighs and stands herself, making her way slowly towards him until she stops just at his side. "Will you please consider -
A sharp rapping sounds against Arthur's door - not one of Merlin's warning knocks, but the precise rhythm of one of the knights - and Gwen springs back, turns towards Arthur's empty dinner dishes and begins piling, as though she only came to collect them in the first place.
Arthur meets her gaze and he looks for a moment as if he understands, his eyes a little pained, but the knock sounds again, and he calls for whoever it is to enter, and Gwen exits quickly past Leon who gives her a look which is half surprised and half entirely not and Gwen almost wishes she was someone else.
"Odin wishes to visit Camelot," his father informs him without preamble.
Arthur sways backwards in surprise, raising his brows high. "Odin wants to negotiate a peace..?"
Uther hesitates and winces, much to Arthur's shock. When he speaks again, Arthur dimly thinks that it is his father who addresses him, and no longer the king of Camelot. And that his father sounds uncharacteristically apologetic. "It appears Odin has a daughter who he kept a secret, for her protection, for many years. If we can arrange a union for her in Camelot, Odin will no longer pursue to destroy the kingdom."
His mouth has gone dry, and he speaks without thinking, "Who does Odin want her to marry?" He knows the answer.
Sympathetically, reluctantly, Uther says, "You."
Rumours fly across the kingdom with shocking haste. By the time Odin's travel party arrive in the courtyard, peasants and nobles alike find excuses to wander the space and glimpse Camelot's future queen.
"Guinevere," he begins and she doesn't need to let him finish to know the words he will speak.
There is no slight smile of greeting on her face this time as she moves to him, twines her fingers and lets them drop to hang before her, heavy against her thighs.
She knows; he needs to say it and she wishes he wouldn't.
His fist rises, covers an awkward cough, as though he had kissed her yesterday morning and then had fought an assassin and now had to bid her farewell. Instead of months and months of -
"The peace we would achieve by reaching an accord with Odin's kingdom would be invaluable to Camelot." His eyes only dip for a moment before he finds hers again. "His conditions are clear, no room for negotiation."
Her heart is slowly breaking and there's a hollow thrumming in her ears she can't identify. But she swallows, and jerks a nod. "Of course," Gwen says, as strongly as she can. "We always knew this would end."
A flash of frustration crosses his features but for once, in this, he can no longer counter her.
The words in the treaty make little sense; they seem to swim in his mind and he can't quite grasp their meaning or their implication to Camelot. Nor can he quite sort out what Odin's kingdom gets from the negotiation, though he has little true concern for that.
A gentle knock sounds, and relief surges. She always had near perfect timing, and a quick glance out the window tells him why. Twilight. Their time, when they could manage it.
"Enter," he says warmly, having forgotten their ending.
The woman who steps in is too tall, too round. She dips a curtsey and extends Princess Anice's invitation to dinner.
Her face grows tomato red as Arthur stares at her, aghast. And when her lips tremble in uncertainty, he shakes his head and looks away, saying gruffly, "Of course. I will see her in an hour then."
The scene plays out much as it had in her vision. It is the final night Odin and Anice and the rest of their knights and lesser nobles are meant to be in Camelot, and the room watches Arthur and Anice with breaths held desperately inside their chests.
Morgana watches, horrified as Arthur bows low to Anice when they meet after the meal. The room falls silent, eerily so, as eyes turn and mouths gape.
Through intuition or imagination, Morgana feels Gwen freeze solid behind her, and pictures the look on her face. It hurts them both.
"Princess Anice," Arthur begins and Morgana has known him forever and she can hear how much he doesn't want to do this, does not at all desire this woman or the results of this farcical union for peace. She may have no care for Uther, but she wishes no ill on Arthur. And still, he speaks and she can't stop him. "I -
What she wants is for simplicity. There are facts in her mind and in her heart, and if only they could be spread around her, solidly, like the soil in the ground, ripe and ready for fresh life and growth.
But Gwen has learned, if things begin complicated, they will end complicated.
Foolishness finds her here: in the court, with her head dropped out of feigned respect. Feigned because she cannot bear to watch, to stand by as Arthur declares himself to another.
But she must. Duty requires it. She looks up.
He resents and blesses his body for responding where his heart and mind do not.
The woman beside him is too pale, too slim, too blond. He has not touched Guinevere as he moves to touch Anice now, but he knows by instinct, by indulgent imagining, that her body is all wrong.
There are lines where there ought to be curves, softness where there ought to be firmness, tumbling waves where there ought to be bouncing curls.
She is beautiful, and confident, and fond of him. And he is absolutely guilty for his wayward thoughts.
But this much he does know: as his mouth covers her shoulder, the small rise of a mole ought to pass beneath his tongue but the skin is smooth. When his mouth finds the dip of her clavicle, she ought to suck in a sharp breath but her breathing is even. His nose dragging along the column of her neck to her ear ought to make her giggle but she only strokes her hand down his side, quiet.
He's thankful she clearly has no idea: her soft sighs and the whispers of his name are unabashed and sure. She deserves none of his turmoil.
This is your duty, he thinks, and starts to move.
When they finish, he rolls away and she follows, lands across his chest contentedly and he wonders how Guinevere would have behaved -
Then he stops.
Mortification burns white hot in the pit of his belly, for something from his eye must have fallen free: Anice hums in warm sympathy, murmurs "Oh, love," affectionately and smiles down at him tenderly.
He lets her kiss him because it's not her fault. Not her fault at all.
But he cannot breathe.
Gwen rolls to her side.
She rolls to her back.
Tomorrow will be busy, but she feels as though every part of her is alive, tingling, hurting. And then a wave of sadness passes through her, and she feels nothing at all.
She ought to try to sleep. But her dreams will not grant her relief tonight.
So Gwen stares at the ceiling, and allows the tears to pool in the corner of her eyes and spill free.
The silence comforts her as equally as it bellows its emptiness back onto her.
"Odin takes too many liberties by working with other sorcerers," Morgause says lowly, and Morgana has not seen her quite this way before. She is not frightened by the muted fury on her sister's face, but certainly made wary. "If they do not reunite soon, the enchantment will be complete and Camelot will fall."
Morgana tilts her head and frowns. "I confess they're being more honourable than I anticipated, given the nature of their relationship before Anice arrived."
Nodding, Morgause says, tone dancing along the line of sour, "Honourable and stubborn."
Silence falls between them and Morgause rises from the bed, walking to the window as clattering hooves sound in the courtyard. Her frown softens slightly, and Morgana assumes it is Arthur who has returned, wondering, not for the worst time, if her sister and Arthur -
"We must intercede," Morgause says slowly, a frown suddenly pulling at her features once more. "They must be made to interact with each other... And in a situation which causes it frequently."
"Gwen is my maid," Morgana counters, somewhat hopelessly. "And I hardly see Arthur any more myself."
"There are," Morgause begins, then stops and in a tempest of fabrics is gone.
Gwen enters slowly, a confused frown on her face. She falters, meeting Morgana's smile. "I thought I heard voices," she explains slowly, "I was ... I was going to see if you needed anything for your guest."
Offering a sympathetic hum, Morgana shakes her head. "I've obviously been working you far too hard, Gwen, if you're hearing voices," she says easily, kindly, gently teasing. Gwen smiles, embarrassed and apologetic. "But perhaps - it's early yet, but could you see if lunch is ready? We'll share a meal together."
Gwen's smile turns momentarily radiant and she curtseys her exit.
A few beats pass and Morgana clamps a hand down on her skirt as winds pick at it and Morgause returns.
"As I was saying," she continues, idly smoothing her dress. "There are many types of maid. How do Arthur and Anice find their wetnurse?"
"She's atrocious, actually," Anice says with a wince. "She began so sweetly, but has recently started to ignore Odard when he cries."
Morgana tuts, frowning deeply. "How cruel," she comments, disapproving.
"Oh, it isn't cruel!" Anice says hastily. "He is looked after in terms of his necessities. But it is not how I want my son raised..."
"Have you spoken to Arthur about this?" Morgana asks, patting the princess's hand sympathetically.
Blond waves swirl when Anice shakes her head. "He has been away the last fortnight when the poor treatment began," she says fretfully. "He isn't due home for another ten days yet."
"Well the behaviour simply cannot be allowed to continue," Morgana says firmly. "Be rid of her, Anice. Arthur will understand."
"Oh, but where will I find another nursemaid so quickly? It took months to find the one we have now."
"Don't worry about that," Morgana says, tipping her head thoughtfully and looking towards her bed chambers. She pauses, as though in thought, then calls, "Gwen?"
Gwen appears in the threshold, her expression carefully composed to a look of benign curiosity. "My lady?"
Morgana smiles at her, turning back to Anice. "Gwen is wonderful with children, aren't you, Gwen?"
Her eyes turn wary and Gwen shakes her head slightly. "I wouldn't say that..."
"You're being modest," Morgana says dismissively. "Princess Anice says the new baby's nursemaid has some questionable techniques."
"How awful," Gwen responds dutifully, eyes trained keenly on Morgana.
"I've urged her to give the woman the sack," Morgana continues.
"But I have no replacement, Lady Morgana," Anice inserts mournfully. Perfectly timed, by Morgana's estimation.
"And that's why I suggest you take Gwen on. Temporarily, of course. Until you find another."
A flash of betrayal moves across Gwen's face before her attention is drawn to Anice, who says in earnest imploration, "Oh, could you, Gwen? As long as Lady Morgana does not mind losing you for a few weeks - or perhaps months... She speaks of your warmth constantly. I'm sure you would be perfect."
Gwen's hands knot and she swallows, eyes flitting to Morgana's face for help.
But in finding no aid there, she nods stiffly. "Of course," she says evenly. "It would be an honour," she adds faintly.
Morgana smiles, ignoring the twist in her stomach for the pain Gwen will endure. For the future, she thinks and turns to Anice. "It's settled, then."
Gwen rarely seeks solace. When she raps her knuckles on the door to Gaius' chambers, the weak heat of shame turns her stomach.
But Merlin answers, and his warm smile is welcome, Gaius' called invitation appreciated, and Gwen steps across the threshold.
After asking about their days - both fairly good, by their estimations - Gwen sits heavily at their food table and waits as Merlin takes a seat beside her, perched across the bench as though it were a horse, and Gaius hovers across the table, watching her closely.
When Merlin reaches a hand forward, she offers, "Princess Anice has requested I take over as Prince Odard's nursemaid."
Gaius breathes out heavily, and says, "Where is the ale, Merlin?" as Merlin's hand closes around hers reassuringly.
"In the cupboard in my room," Merlin replies, eyes trained on Gwen's face even as Gaius throws him a stern look.
After two cups of the drink, they speak no more of Arthur, or Anice, or Odard, or anything pertaining to castle life at all. Instead, they regale her with tales of Gaius' stranger patients, or anecdotes from Merlin's youth in Ealdor, and Gwen is grateful she came.
Long fingers affectionately stroke his lower back as he sets his scabbard on the table.
"It's good to have you home," Anice breathes against his neck, her hands sliding to hold him close against her.
Arthur swallows, feeling hollow, and leans back into her touch. He means it when he says, "It's good to be home."
Then he moves away, sliding free from her hold, on the pretence of pouring himself some wine. "I'd like to see Odard before bed."
From the corner of his eyes, he sees as Anice nods, picking up her stitching and settling in a chair by the hearth. "We've a new nursemaid," she informs him lightly.
"What was wrong with Alice?"
"She started ignoring Odard when he cried," she says, sounding regretful. Arthur frowns deeply and turns to face her. "I know," she says emphatically. "The new one is temporary, though, but very good."
It is Arthur's turn to nod as he finishes the rest of his wine in one swallow. "As long as Odard is happy."
"Oh, he adores her."
Gwen sees him before he sees her. The look on his face sets a low ache deep in her belly, but she quells it when he turns fully into the room and spots her.
The pleased, expectant look falters, then melts from his features, and she cannot read the expression which replaces it because she does not want to.
"Guinevere," he says, obviously absolutely astounded.
Her fingers grasp the fabric of her dress, and her knees bend, her head lowered. "Sire," she says, resolute in her even tones.
When she rises, he's watching her, pained, and she wishes he wouldn't. It was hard enough without his offering and begging pity.
"I didn't expect -
"Princess Anice has requested I serve as the young Prince's wetnurse. Until a more suitable nursemaid can be found to oversee his upbringing."
His face falls again, and she thinks there was a time when she was warmed by his openness with his emotions in her company. What he did not speak, would be clear on his face. She had liked that.
"He looks very much like you," she adds, because the words rose to her throat and ran along her tongue to escape through her lips before she had the chance to close the bars of her teeth.
Arthur winces, and moves forward tentatively. Of course, she thinks, and steps away. He had come to see his son, not the nurse. Not her. He has not come to see her since their parting. Though neither has she gone to him.
She retreats to the door, but cannot leave. She is required here, and is put through torture as Arthur leans over the edge of the crib, extending a hand down and offering it to the child. Look away, she urges herself sternly, but she cannot. It is some sort of self-inflicted punishment for a crime she cannot identify.
Arthur moves, and she images he ruffles the boy's hair. Straight. Blond. Thin wisps.
After a moment, Arthur says, offhandedly and so quietly Gwen wonders if she imagines it, "He would have been more handsome blessed with curls."
Gwen allows herself to close her eyes, looking upwards in the darkness.
He isn't sure if it's more cruel to Guinevere, or Anice, or Odard, or himself that he continues to come here. Come, that is, and stay without dismissing her.
Gwen sits in a chair by the fire, needle moving, flashing, in its dancing light as she stitches one of Odard's slippers where he had chewed it through.
Odard is propped on his knee, burbling unhappily with a little frown, as though he can feel the room is drenched in aching.
"The new harvest is meant to thrive," Arthur says suddenly, because it's the sixth night in ten he's come here, and they've not managed more than simple greetings and farewells.
She nods, and one of her curls catches on her gown, tugged as she shifts position but resolutely caught, as though daring him to stand, walk to her, and release it as he once would have done. Instead, he turns Odard inward, and gently jostles the baby between his thighs in a weak attempt to see his jolly smile again, for some light to enter the room.
"I have heard as much," Gwen finally says, reaching for more thread. "Mary thinks she'll make a small fortune by the time she can bring her vegetables to market."
Mary. The familiarity washes over him, warming and hurting him.
And then Gwen stiffens, and looks towards him, worried. "Not that what she might make is enough to open her family to further taxation," she says hurriedly, and his stomach twists so sharply that Arthur leans forwards a little, to Odard's nervous, wide-eyed surprise.
He wants to chuckle, or at least smile at her. "The secret is safe with me," he says, solemn. Gwen nods and drops her gaze, watching each stitch carefully again.
"I don't think that sounds fair," Gwen murmurs, frowning down at the table as she scrubs it clean. Arthur stands by the window, his son held carefully against his chest as he reads aloud certain parts of the demands set by Odin in preparation for the summer drought his kingdom faces. "Can you please read it again?"
"Eight-hundred, sixty-two barrels of water from our well to start, with the expectation that he will have unending access for the duration."
She makes a face and looks up at him across the room. "Eight-hundred, sixty-two barrels? Is it even possible to transport so high a number such a great distance without -
"Losing the entire supply? All of it evaporating in the heat?" Arthur snorts, waves the parchment around and jostles Odard so that the babe grumbles around his thumb. "There are not even four-hundred water barrels in Camelot, let alone eight! The demand is ludicrous."
"Can you not explain that to Odin?"
"I can, and I have," Arthur says, annoyed. "But he asks, politely, that we commission more barrels be made."
Gwen gapes at him. "But already we approach the hot season, there is no time..."
"Even if all the wood workers in Camelot were to get to work on it, they have too many duties besides to make four-hundred -
"I know. And that isn't even taking into account that our water supply is not endless."
Worrying her lip, Gwen sets the scrub cloth aside and begins to reset the table. "The king..?"
Arthur snorts and begins to pace. "My father is equally at a loss, and leaves it entirely in my hands to figure out."
"The court advisers," Gwen says, a little desperately, but looks up to find Arthur shaking his head. Odard, at least, appears happier with the backwards and forwards movements of Arthur's pacing, waving his arms about and staring with interest around the room.
The sight reminds her that it will be time to feed him soon, and she moves towards the cabinet to prepare. "What does Princess Anice suggest?" she asks quietly, busying herself in the cupboard's depths to keep from having to see Arthur.
His hesitation is long, however, and there's only so long she can fiddle. Straightening and turning around, only flicking her eyes towards him as she moves back towards the table, Arthur looks guilty.
"I hadn't thought to ask," he admits finally, and Gwen has no response for a declaration like that.
"There are rumours Cenred wants to move against the kingdom," he says quietly, leaning over the side of the crib to watch Odard as he snores softly through the afternoon. He was so small, and had such an enormous life ahead of him. As protective affection builds up and threatens to overcome him, Arthur wonders vaguely if Uther ever sympathised with him as he now feels for his son.
"But Cenred has no quarrel with Camelot," Gwen says behind him, nervous and confused. She's condemned to sewing again, and he increasingly resents it.
"No, but there is a long standing disagreement with Odin."
A low, heavy exhalation sounds behind him. He turns and Gwen meets his gaze, frowning. He imagines her thoughts are as his own: the promise for peace in exchange for marriage is hardly being kept to the letter.
"And Camelot stands between Cenred and Odin," Gwen continues practically, breaking the tension building between them.
Arthur sighs. "Geographically, always, but now also by way of... treaty."
He looks away and so does she.
"There must be a way to negotiate a peace with him," Gwen continues as Arthur walks to the open window, looking down into the castle gardens. It's a fine nursery, he thinks benignly, the scents of the flowers wafting sweetly into the room. "Convince your father, Arthur. Bring them to Camelot for talks."
"Camelot is no longer neutral territory," he counters with a wince.
"But your honour stands in high regard with Cenred. It will act in the stead of neutrality."
Arthur shakes his head, quelling the full ache of longing that accompanies her familiar encouragement. "I don't believe Cenred remembers that right now."
"Remind him," she says. Not simply; with the full weight of knowing what measures may have to be taken to accomplish it. But he hears it, and as ever has her absolute faith.
They had been silent all evening.
Arthur's mind is clearly on Odard, the boy cradled close to his chest, sleeping deeply as Arthur watches him intently.
Gwen leaves them be, concentrating on her tasks. He leaves in the morning, the mission dangerous, regardless of Cenred's promises of sanctuary, and so it may be Odard's last opportunity-
The needle slips and pricks her finger deeply. Gwen hardly winces, dabbing the blood on her apron and continuing on.
The candle burns low and Arthur finally stirs, standing and gently placing Odard in his crib.
From the corner of her eye, she watches him hover by the child's bed, her needle unstopping.
Then Arthur turns, and walks to stand beside her, and Gwen swallows, tipping her head to look up at him. He stares at the tiny tunic on her lap, seeing something else, so Gwen sets the clothing aside and begins to stand herself.
As she rises, Arthur meets her eyes and they watch each other. She thinks she should step back, away, she can feel the heat of him, they're too close -
"Thank you," Arthur says, and she wasn't sure what she had been expecting, but it hadn't been that.
She inclines her head and licks her lips. "What for?"
A smile flickers fast across Arthur's mouth, affectionately amused, and it burns her before it disappears.
"For your... support. These last months."
"And for taking care of Odard. He'd been a solemn child. Before."
Gwen closes her eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. "Of course," she repeats.
A new pause extends, then Arthur clears his throat. "Anice believes she has found a suitable permanent nursemaid. A woman called Melanie."
"A fine choice," Gwen murmurs.
"I think so." He hesitates. "She should have started by the time I return."
The silence extends again until Arthur stirs, drawing a deep breath and taking a small step closer to her. "Gwen -
She doesn't want to hear it.
"It's been a honour taking care of the prince," she interrupts. "And I'm glad I could... help you. Again."
No longer looking at him, she just catches the motion as he shakes his head, and tries again, "Gwen -
"I hope your trip is successful," she speaks across him once more. Please stop, she prays. "Cenred will surely see -
Almost against her will, her mouth snaps shut and she raises her head, just managing to force herself to look him in the eyes. She had never been able to sort out the difference between the times he let her go, and those times he forced her close. She would have thought that tonight would be a time for letting go, and yet...
Pouting his lips, Arthur pauses now, glancing at her throat before holding her gaze. "I only... When I return," he hesitates, studying her expression and she can't keep the wary frown from her face. "I only ask... Can we still find time to ... To see one another? To meet, like this?"
"I don't..." think that's wise. It dies on her lips; his expression mirrors everything she feels, and the initial reply had been instinctive, automatic. Not something she had thought through, his request unimaginable.
And perhaps... Perhaps they can find, between them, too much integrity for wisdom to fail.
So she whispers the last words of the evening, repetition of earlier sentiment: "Of course."
He sways towards her - familiar motion indicating his lips will brush her forehead, cheek, mouth... They don't. He straightens quickly, awkwardly, and she pretends that it is only a result of his tiredness, and nothing to do with weakening wills.
"I know how to force their hand," Morgause says as she pulls back from Morgana's welcome embrace. "It is quite simple, now that Arthur has gone to Cenred's court."
"What is it?" Morgana asks, twisting to light the candle at her bedside. "Arthur will not return for several days..."
She turns back and Morgause shakes her head. "That's fine. We only need to speak with Guinevere."
Hesitating, Morgana holds the candle between them and grips Morgause's hand tightly. "We?"
"I will be in disguise," Morgause says reassuringly, smiling slightly. "And the information I give to her, she will not be able to keep to herself."
"But Gwen is no fool," Morgana says, tilting her head. "Whatever you're going to say must have the weight of more than a single person behind it."
"I know, which is why I will come bearing Cenred's shield."
"Please, Gwen. You're the only one who can do anything with the information."
Gwen watches Morgana closely, gently bouncing Odard as he makes valiant efforts to avoid falling asleep for his afternoon nap. Presently, the effort takes the form of tugging on an errant curl of her hair, which Gwen gently pries free from his fingers, cooing affectionately down at him.
"I don't understand what I can do," Gwen responds simply, quietly, smoothing Odard's hair from his forehead.
She looks away from Odard as Morgana walks to the chamber door and closes it, sliding the lock into place. Watching warily as Morgana returns to stand just before her, Gwen shifts Odard, drawing him closer to her chest.
"Gwen," Morgana begins gently, and Gwen's anxiety peaks. "I know you have Arthur's ear."
"I do not -
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," Morgana says, her hand finding Gwen's beneath Odard's back, squeezing her fingers. "I came to visit you one evening, expecting to find you alone and bored after Odard had been put to bed, but instead Arthur was here. Alone, with you, and watching..." She stops as Gwen's lips part, as she tries to think of some counter, something to deflect the truth of Morgana's words. "And together you spoke of the kingdom, of the various problems it faces."
"That was only -
"I couldn't wish for Arthur to have a better secret adviser," Morgana interrupted her, smiling softly at her and withdrawing her hand. "But it means that now you need to come with me, and speak with this woman in the market. Arthur will listen to you if you bring him the information."
She shakes her head, looking back down at Odard, whose eyes were finally beginning to close. "He would be just as open to you -
"But he is no longer accustomed to me, Gwen," Morgana insists and Gwen winces. "He knows you, though."
Ever grateful for Gwen's help, Anice was happy to look after Odard to give Morgana and Gwen an afternoon to walk in the market together.
Morgana easily navigates the lanes, going to areas Gwen rarely found cause to enter.
Halfway down a tight thoroughfare, a hag steps unexpectedly before them, startling even Morgana. The woman drops an apple core, brown and withered and Gwen feels a sharp pang of sympathy.
"How far have you come, mother?" she asks warmly, reaching out to touch the woman's hand. But the woman withdraws, gives a hacking cough and waves Gwen off.
When she speaks, her voice is a wheeze and her eyes peer cloudy from beneath her travel cloak. "I am here from Cenred's kingdom," she says roughly. Gwen wishes she had thought to bring water. "There is news you must know."
"My lady told me this," Gwen says gently, reaching forward only to be denied again. "What is it you know?"
"I require my compensation," the woman says,
Morgana moves forward, offering the woman a small sack which jingles. Gwen had not realised there was a price for the information and her wariness immediately heightens.
The hag opens the sack, her shaking fingers picking through the coins inside before it disappears into her cloak. "Cenred plans to attack Camelot, now an accord has been struck with Odin."
Gasping, Gwen glances back at Morgana who frowns fiercely. "That means this entire treaty, Arthur's marriage, is all a farce," Morgana says furiously and Gwen turns quickly back to the woman.
Who shrugs her shoulders, and offers a wet, painful cough. "I cannot comment on the frivolous acts of nobility," she sneers, "Only on the betrayal of kings."
Gwen glances down at her slippers, frowning, before she finds the woman's face again. "I respect your bravery, mother," she says carefully, "But I must know... How did you come upon this information?"
Reaching into the shadows of her cloak, the woman withdraws a scrap of parchment, upon which the waxen seals of the kingdoms sit, fat and dull, beside the unmistakable scrawls of the traitorous men's signatures.
"And why -
She pulls from her cloak the torn, bloodied, strip of a cloak, bearing Cenred's mark again. "My son once served as a knight, before he was struck down by Odin's men. Defiled in death by his leader's fickle betrayal."
Ignoring how the woman draws back, Gwen does grip her hand then, squeezing in angry sympathy. "I promise you Prince Arthur will know of this."
The woman offers a weak sound of relief, and allows Gwen to embrace her.
Over her shoulder, Morgause meets Morgana's eye and they share a small smile of triumph.
Arthur exits the throne room, tense and deeply lost in thoughts of battle plans, and how to remain tactful as he informs the knights of the coming fight. So lost in his thoughts, he doesn't register Gwen's quiet calls until her hand curls lightly around his elbow and she says forcefully, "My lord."
"Guinevere!" Surprised, he draws up short and she bumps into him. He eyes her, unwilling to dismiss her when she looks so distressed, but plans are urgently needed... "I'm sorry, Gwen, I'm due in the war council -
"I know," she says quickly, unapologetic. "But you ought to know this... Before you get there."
He sucks in a sharp breath, intent on insisting they wait, but she looks at him so urgently that he concedes, lets her lead him into a nearby empty room, and closes the door behind them.
"Is this true, Anice?" Uther asks, his voice dangerously low.
She looks so frightened, eyes so wide, and Arthur pities her. He may not love her, but he knows her now and cares for her, and she hasn't a cruel or malicious thought in her head.
She is simply a pawn to her father. They all had been.
"N-no, my lord," she says, and looks earnest. "I don't understand these accusations."
Arthur frowns at her when she looks at him. He can see on her face that it's true, and that she's sorry. She would not reveal the truth of it, though.
She was kind, but had no bravery.
"Arthur," Uther calls, drawing Arthur's attention back again. "How did you learn of this?"
He hesitates, not wanting to call attention when Gwen had risked so much -
"I informed him, my lord," Guinevere says, stepping apart from the crowd until she stands equal to Arthur, a short distance away.
"You?" Uther says, incredulous, and turns a frown on Arthur. "Morgana's maid?"
"Guinevere also served as Odard's nurse for the last three months," Arthur says, though it will make little difference to his father. "She has done nothing but serve this kingdom and its nobles faithfully," he continues. "I trust her information."
"Prince Arthur," Anice suddenly speaks from his other side, taking an urgent step towards him. "I would not act to betray this kingdom -
"You would not," Arthur agrees, unrelenting and gentle. "But your father would."
As she fails to respond, Arthur looks to his father again and watches as Uther glances between the two women, before the familiar grey eyes finally alight back on him. "Who do you believe, Arthur?" Uther asks, and for once, Arthur thinks his father truly does not know where to throw his support. Does he let himself bow to his fears, his paranoia, or stand by his prejudice of class and standing. "Princess Anice, or the girl, the maidservant?" he adds unnecessarily.
Anice looks over her shoulder at him, her face open, desperate and fragile.
Gwen turns to face him squarely, her expression determined, veracity in her eyes. She holds his gaze steady, trusting him, challenging him, until he looks away to Anice once more.
He wishes he could do more than pity her.
But movement draws his attention again as Gwen misinterprets his looking away. For of course a prince will choose a princess; it is his duty as her husband. She takes a step back, tipping her chin up in an almost regal manner as she looks back to Uther and waits for her existence to end.
"Guinevere," he says firmly, and there's a sharp gasp from an idiot noble behind him. "I believe Guinevere -
The ground buckles and Arthur stumbles. When he rights himself again, he is in the ballroom once more, twenty months earlier.
The entire room has fallen silent for he has just met Anice after their meal; the gathered wait to see him propose, to see the start of something brand new in the kingdom. To witness the moment when their future queen is selected, and peace should descend.
Anice is smiling at him, waiting politely, though her eyes shine anticipation.
His eyes slide past her, to the way Odin, seated beside his father at the main table, leans forward, watching keenly. Morgana stares, appearing horrified, though he can't imagine why. And Gwen...
Gwen stands behind Morgana, frozen with her lips parted, sight turned in on herself, watching without seeing. What is happening - meant to be happening - is no surprise to her, he feels, for they spoke only yesterday about this. But yesterday was an entire lifetime ago.
"My lord?" Anice prompts as Arthur continues to stare past her.
And he nods, squaring his shoulders and holding his head high. "Princess Anice, I ... I offer the wishes for a safe return journey to your kingdom tomorrow, on behalf of the entirety of Camelot. And extend an open invitation for you and your father to visit again."
Tension in the hall peaks and Uther shifts, leaning forward, clearly about to speak, when Anice tilts her head and her eyes go dim. "That won't be necessary," she says hollowly, and vanishes, along with Odin's entire visiting court.
The silence lasts a moment longer, then pandemonium breaks loose.
After being dismissed by Morgana for the night, Gwen has forced herself to behave normally. The explanations circulate, wilder as the day passed, and she couldn't be sure which were near the truth and which might as well explain how the moon hung in the sky.
So she eats an apple and only knows that her mind is filled with memories of a life which appears never to have unfolded, like a dream so real as to shift reality for a time. But she remembers the distance and the longing and how it felt to hold Arthur's son in her arms -
A knock sounds, and her heart drops because its rhythm and weight is blessedly familiar in the midst of her confusion.
Wiping her hands on a cloth, she forces herself to move slowly to the door before opening it cautiously.
Arthur stands on her step, hidden beneath his blasted blue cloak. He opens his mouth, but no sound leaves his throat, and Gwen steps back to allow him entrance.
As soon as the door closes, her hands find his arms and she's pressed him back against it, risen to her toes to move her mouth forcefully on his, and it takes no time before his arms wrap around her and he keeps her tight against him.
Distantly he thinks it would be a more comfortable reunion had it taken place in his chambers, where the bed was less hard and afforded them more room to move around.
As it is, the slightest shift has him banging into the wall, but it only makes Gwen laugh, and he has so missed that sound.
Hovering above her, he slides the sleeve of her dress aside and applies his mouth to her shoulder. His tongue strokes slow, and lingers over the beloved rise of a mole. Then her hand strokes along his neck, sneaking beneath the collar of his shirt and he moves quickly, drawing his nose up the column of her throat, relishing her breathless giggles as he agitates the ticklish spot, before he claims her mouth again.
Her hips fill his hands, and her hands massage his spine. Her breathing increases sharply when he nuzzles her clavicle and her fingers prod and tease the rise of his bum making him groan. When she forces them to roll - awkwardly, hilariously so that even Arthur begins laughing without being able to stop or breathe - her weight on top of him is exactly right, and her legs tangled with his are the length he expects - her toes hardly reaching his mid-calf, let alone finding his feet.
When the urgency and playfulness eases, and they roll to their sides to see one another plainly, Gwen's kisses are soft and warm, and his hands are slow and gentle stroking over her ribs.
They watch each other, and then Gwen shifts, tugging her skirt free from beneath his knees and straightening the shoulder of her top before tugging his shirt down where it had risen to reveal his hip.
"I was considering what you said," he begins, the first words spoken in her house that night.
She makes a face, and glances away for a moment, so that he waits for her to look at him again. "Before... talking about that, would you tell me what exactly happened?"
Scowling, Arthur finds her hand and links their fingers resolutely. "It appears Odin is not only working with Morgause, but has several magical people in his employ."
"But what -
"His plan was to weaken Camelot from within," Arthur says quietly, "Depleting our resources and threatening our security by secret accords struck with other kingdoms while we were distracted."
"So... did all of that truly happen?" Gwen asks softly, frowning. "I remember so much, but the time it happened has vanished."
"I don't know. I don't understand it," he admits after a moment, unthinkingly shifting closer to her. "But Odin has no daughter, that much has now been verified beyond a doubt."
Arthur tips his chin forward to kiss her, and Gwen meets him. He moves his mouth slowly across hers, and Gwen tilts her head to match him. There's an ache of separation in the pit of his belly that he doubts will fade any time soon, though as her tongue slips along his top lip before he captures her bottom lip gently between his teeth, he supposes moments like this may weaken its affects.
He savours the sweet taste of apple on her tongue, and she explores the crevices of his mouth before they break apart, flush against one another once more.
"As I had been saying," he starts, once Gwen has made herself comfortable against him. The angle is awkward for him, and his lower back protests the way he holds himself, but he hardly cares as a curl falls against his chest when she looks up at him. "I was considering what you said, and it seems you are not the only one who must appear obviously off limits."
Gwen's look is even and resigned as she shakes her head. "There's no way for us to do that," she murmurs. "I had a great deal of time to consider how we may have bent the rules to our favour, and there's no way."
Arthur steels himself; he knows what he is about to say will not be met well. "And if we don't obey the rules?" he asks quietly, watching her ear and not her eyes. "If we reveal ourselves, and damn the disapproval?"
Her sigh, when it comes after an incredibly long pause, is so soft. Her hand lands against his cheek, sympathetic. "We can't do that."
"I know what it is to have another woman at my side now," he says gently, trying to soften the sharpness of the reminder. "And I still needed you. There is no one better to be queen, Guinevere. I am sure of it."
"She was not real, Arthur -
"No, but she is a mirror of many of the noble women who live across Albion. Many mean well, but have no bravery, no integrity. They bow to their husbands or fathers or society and think little of the greater consequences."
"You cannot know that for certain," Gwen insists, moving her hand from his cheek to wrap around his back. "Some things cannot be."
"This is not one of those things," he persists, moving his head to rest his brow to hers. "Will you please consider it? Between us, we can find a way to make it work."
His eyes follow the motion as she chews her bottom lip, still swollen from their kisses, as she watches him. When her lip slides free, he looks her in the eye again and warmth floods him with the hope that shines there.
"I will consider it," she promises.
A/N 2 YT, The Winner Takes It All from Mamma Mia. Meryl Streep, ILU *_*
And, as it helped a little bit too, have SOS as well. Feel free to mock Pierce if you must, but I'll adore him always.
As always, comments are ♥ and concrit is more than appreciated.