Market day. The smells thicken over Gwen’s face in the fuzzy heat of town, pungent and distinct. Well, they aren’t exactly pleasant, in the traditional sense of the word – offal from the pack mules, effusive sweat from the multitude packed into the street, the stench of the tannery carried up from the lower town in the skins brought in to trade, as well as the tanner trading them, and the hanging dread of perfume from the stalls that try in vain to cover it all up – soon she’ll be up into the heart of town, where the rush of the market fades into the more subtle sale of the bakeries and exotic baubles and fine, fancy laces. It will smell quite nicely, up on High Street.
Gwen wrinkles her nose and brushes a curl out of the catch of her eyelashes. The leather isn’t quite thick enough for the bulk of a jerkin, but the strips will do fine for the binding. And perhaps a shining wrap of black dyed leather done to a fine polish for the hilt of the sword she’s nearly finished to send up to the new guardsman. Tom? Timothy?
It’s not like she’s forgotten his name or anything. Gwen is (almost completely) sure it starts with a “T” at any rate. It’s just that he had never been particularly involved in the whole crafting process for the sword. Not that he isn’t important! To the work, at least, he just doesn’t have much of an impact, and so that’s why she has forgotten his name.
“How many d’you want, little lady?” the tanner asks. “Only you’re frowning some’fin awful. But just you know that this here’s the best tested leather in the ‘ole of Warligon. Tough and light. Soft leather wrappings, like that as you’ve got in yer ‘and right now. Nice, rich dye straight in from across the sea. Brought it over myself.”
“The dye – it’s been set, of course?” Gwen asks, trying to remember all her father had told her, before setting her out the door on the hunt for a few odds and ends, about haggling. “Only, I don’t want to wrap my quite fine sword with such lovely colour just to have it fade in my customer’s hand after not even a day of training.” The tanner’s face seems to fall at that, though, and oh, that wasn’t really what Gwen had wanted to happen at all. “Not that I’m saying that your work is shoddy, of course – I just want to make sure. And I’m not saying that you would lie to me about how well the leather is dyed, of course! Ah, I just – “
The tanner smiles. Gwen flushes and hopes her skin has tanned dark enough already that it isn’t obvious. This haggling business is nonsense, anyway. The price given is more than fair already, so why should she try to knock it down any further?
“Tell you what,” the tanner says after a beat. His smile is small but sincere, and Gwen can’t help but smile back. “I’ll give you the pack of leathers and two bundles of strips with the nice black dyed soft leather wrap for two silver pennies. That’s a bargain, that is. But here I am, just a sucker for a soft face as yours, lass.”
Well, two silver pennies is more than Gwen had been hoping on spending, but she knows that opening her mouth will only drive that price higher. She sighs and digs around in her purse, pulling out two full silver pennies while the tanner bundles the strips, dyed and plain, atop the full leathers and waits for Gwen to drop the pennies into his hand with the smallest – really, the slightest – of winces.
“Have it sent to the smithy up on Mid Street – Thomas’s.”
The sun is pulling itself higher much more quickly than Gwen wants it to. Almost noon, and she still would like to find her way out of town to pick some flowers to freshen up the smithy. It’s been getting awful stuffy in there. Could do with a nice airing.
“ – Guinevere, Smith’s daughter, right over there,” a boy’s light voice says.
(Gwen stops herself from turning around from where she’s playing with a few trinkets made of polished wood – puzzles, brought from the East – but oh, she is curious.)
“Yeah, you’re right in luck, milord!”
(Is that Mattie, the boy who runs errands for her father?)
“Her pa’s Thomas Smith, runs the smithy a few streets up. And Gwen here’s even picked up the trade herself, can you believe it? A girl behind a smithy?” And Mattie laughs, but too high spirited to mean cruelty. Gwen is well used to cruelty – not many think a woman skilled enough to work their blades. The world is a strange place, and Gwen can never quite fathom it.
“You know what, I rather think I can,” says another voice. A... familiar voice? But no, it’s been years since she’s lived in Camelot, and the Crown Prince would not leave the citadel long enough to reach Warligon.
“Well, after seein’ Gwen, so can I, milord. She’s got the eye for it, she has. Can see the line of the metal clear as day.”
(Gwen smiles, proud and overwhelmed just the slightest, because maybe at last she’s found a place that thinks her worthy and not just strange and ill-mannered wild thing for not bending to the classic ideals of what a girl should be.)
“Do they barter?” asks the man who can’t be Prince Arthur. But who sounds so very like him, from what Gwen had once heard as part of the masses in the courtyard on announcement days. “Or even – will they give coin in trade for armour?”
“Not as a point of principle, but yours, milord, I reckon they might be tempted to. That’s fine, that is.”
Fine enough for Mattie to admire? Gwen turns around, ignoring the insistent pull of the vendors voice about, “Just three coppers, only three, and keep your little tykes quiet for hours. Peace and quiet, only three coppers, miss!”
Gwen’s eyes widen, though the sun slants bright across the market square, shining atop the dun wash of the market street. Gwen’s mouth slackens, because there he is, the Golden Prince of Camelot. His head bows under the weight of the sun and the sleep slathered thick beneath his eyes. His hands are bared and sore with skin cracked in the cold of what must have been too many nights asleep without a warming fire. Soft leather reins wrap around his left wrist and gather in his clenched fingers, but the horse at his shoulder doesn’t seem tempted to stray. It – he, a massive, dark brown stallion that bears nobility in the high arch of his neck and burden in the packs slung over his back – stands close to the prince, a firm weight at Arthur’s back.
People mill around him and Mattie, attentions fixed to the massive stallion, annoyed at every swish of his tail and scowling at his massive bulk in the middle of the market street that forces them to scuttle around in the gutters to sidestep. No one spares a glance for Arthur himself, perfectly unaware or uncaring that the blood of kings pulses amongst them. But the shine of his armour, dirtied and dulled with dried blood as it is, catches Gwen’s eye. She appraises it, up and down, trying to see the workmanship through the mud and flakes of blood that hide between the chain links and in the metal divots. Scorched along the tops of the shoulders, leather blackened and cracked – and, oh, but his poor back! Red slashes peek out from under the hauberk in angry glares, and how could she have missed this, the shine of skin made raw by wheeling burns?
Pendragon. Gwen’s father had used to tell her stories about the Pendragons. So many that when she reaches back through her mind, wading through the glut of warped and stilted images that sum together as the whole of her earliest memories, she sees her father again and again. Sees the dark stretch of his smiling face and the gleam of his teeth as he talks and talks and talks. The warmth of the heart spreads thick along her back and she wobbles always over her father’s knee. Sometimes Elyan is there, bouncing around the room with his voice distractingly discordant against the low lull of Father’s. Sometimes Mother is there, humming as she prods another log into the wood stove during the bitter cold of winter. But this is constant: Gwen and Father, and the stories he tells her.
His favourite had once been about the conquest for Camelot. How the man called Pendragon, king over the Otherkind – dragons and warlocks and the fey – had swarmed across a war-torn land and bent it into a kingdom. “The dragonlords hailed at Uther’s side and a thousand thousand men who wanted to fight for the peace they deserved, rallied to Uther’s banner. Remember, little Guinevere,” and she remembers even more easily than the story itself how he would wobble his leg back and forth and make her shriek as she fought to keep her seat, “that our king fought for us. So that we could have our home and smithy and so mummy could bake bread and so you could run around the street without silly militiamen frowning at you. So that’s why we bend our knee. To tell him thank you.”
Gwen had still been a young girl when everything had changed. Still a toddler clinging to her father’s calves, really, but it isn’t a thing she’s ever been able to forget. Prince Arthur’s birth, and how scared she had been when she looked outside and saw how red the streets shone in the sunlight. Sorcerers – hedgewitches, really – around every corner, and not enough swords to gut them all.
But that had been years ago. Ages, really, since it had been so bad. Once the king had his sorcerer track the sorcerers afar in the field, the city had quieted and it had become easier to bear the weight of the screaming that seemed ripped from the lungs of caught magic users and practitioners of the Old Religion alike as they were led to the chopping block. On days of public trial, though – when those deemed most dangerous were burnt in a show of perverse power – Gwen had never been able to pretend that her king was still the same man her father had once spoken of with such reverence.
Prince Arthur is staring at her. Gwen blushes and jerks her head away, hair bouncing about her face in her agitation. Heat washes up to the tips of her ears and she hopes it isn’t noticeable, the blushing. It usually is, though, and oh, he’s the prince and here she is, staring and blushing and generally making him uncomfortable! So she turns back around to the vendor, who catches her eye and smiles hopefully while offering up a carved wooden puzzle set.
But then – oh, but he’s seen her staring already, so wouldn’t it be better to just turn back around and acknowledge that she knows that he knows that she’s been looking at him?
Right. After all, he’s only a person. And he looks – Gwen turns around again, slow and on the spot – he looks tired. Like Lance after a long day of futile arguing in the city’s council chambers, or spent patrolling with the newer militiamen on their rounds. Like Elyan does when he stumbles home after weeks spent satisfying his wanderlust, carrying the smithy’s weapons along to whatever city might have need of steel.
Prince Arthur, standing with warmth at his back and an icy stillness locked in his face, looks like Father had after Mother had taken those three deep, chopped breaths, opened her eyes, and died at long last after so many months of fighting. Father had shown that same steel strength, too.
Gwen gathers her cloak tight about herself and walks forward with small steps, smiling at Mattie and trying to not let her gaze linger on the prince for either too long or too briefly.
“Father have you running clear across town again, Mattie?”
“No, Miss Gwen.” Mattie then opens his mouth, looks sideways at the prince, then closes it.
“Well then,” Gwen says. “Then you’d best go off and find yourself a bit of trouble, I should think. Not the – of course, not really though! And not that I think you would like to cause trouble. I just mean…” Gwen shakes her head, because this is silly, far too silly. “Go and find yourself some fun.”
“Yes, miss, a’course, miss!”
Before he’s finished darting off, Gwen turns to Prince Arthur. Her hands flutter at her sides. Does she bow? No, no, ladies must curtsy, that’s the rule. But should she – maybe he’s travelling without pomp for a reason. So she could… shake his hand, that would do for any other chance meeting Gwen could find herself in. But as she raises her hand and reaches out towards Arthur, the horse leans its head over Arthur’s shoulder and huffs hard out its nose, eyes following her half-extended hand. She pulls it back.
“Um. Hi,” she says. “I’m Guinevere. I work at the smithy Mattie was talking about?” And there it is, her inflection shooting skyward. But, well. Gwen figures she can forgive herself for that. She is talking to her first-ever royalty, after all.
Prince Arthur smiles, then, or at least tries to. Limp lips stretch out and his eyes open up a little bit more, though the hard set of his jaw doesn’t soften even slightly.
“I think you’d better take me there,” he says. His voice grates through the air like cinder dragged across a causeway, smoke-abused and lagging with exhaustion. “I’m sure you’d be interested in a closer look at this armour for bartering, after all.”
“Oh! Oh, yes, of course, we’d be overjoyed to have our hands on such fine metal work.” And oh, they would be – this close, Gwen could reach out her fingers and trace along the delicate patterns etched deep into the plate metal. Dragons and lions locked together in a swirl of ash-caked artistry. But – what had Father told her? Never let a seller know the value of his own work. “That is,” she rushes on, “we would not over-mind taking a look at your armour after it has had a good cleaning.”
Prince Arthur hacks out a laugh at that, something that bursts sharp and unexpected from deep in his chest. His teeth shine white against the dirtied dinge of his skin. “Oh, don’t try to fool me, my lady.” (Gwen flushes dark and deep and swift at that.) “I know the quality of the royal forge well enough. You shan’t be prying anything out of my fingers till I deem the payment fair.”
Gwen sighs. “Had to try, didn’t I?”
“Hmm. Come on, then. I’m in rather a hurry.”
And as they wound their way through the bustling marketplace, he doesn’t let more than a few strides pass without turning his gaze skyward, again and again, his hand tight around the grip of his sheathed sword.
“Lance,” Gwen shouts as soon as the door to the house attached to the smithy opens. “Could you let Father know there’s someone here to see him?”
She wipes her hands on a mostly-clean apron that’s sat on a small side table and pulls her red cloak off to hang up by the door. The door still creaks when it opens, and really, she ought to have oiled it into silence by now. But then… on the one hand, a smithy without proper upkeep done on itself isn’t a reassurance to any customer, and on the other, with the door noisy as a cat on a spree of caterwauling, she can hear the door opening from anywhere in the front of the house. As it does just as soon as she’s put the heavy iron kettle over the fire to boil some well water.
“Found someplace to tie your horse, then?”
The prince – king, though, isn’t he? Gwen remembers now, the rider who had come through with a trumpet and a banner bearing the Pendragon sigil, announcing that the king is dead; long live the king – collapses into the chair by the door and starts pulling at the ties of his vambraces.
“The boy,” he says, not looking up at her and not answering. (And oh, but Gwen frowns, hands twitching at her sides, at that.) “He said you might have some idea on where to find a man called Gwaine. And don’t bother your father with this – he also made sure to tell me how your eye is fine enough to set a value to armour.” King Arthur throws his vambraces on the table beside Gwen and tugs at the buckles holding his gambeson loosely in place. The leather is fraying, burnt through to the core and crumbling even as Arthur gentles it through the metal fastenings.
“Here. Wait, stop!” Gwen rushes to his side and shoos his hands away. “Be gentle!” She tuts and tries to pull the armour off of him without further stressing it. “You mustn’t treat it so harsh after its been through so much. And here, I didn’t know there were any dragons left in all of Albion.” Gwen pulls and – oh. The leather cracks along a burnt line of stress. Ah, well. Would have snapped sooner or later. She pauses, then shrugs and starts pushing at Arthur’s arms until he lifts them enough that she can pull the gambeson the rest of the way off. His eyes drift away from hers and he stays quiet, barely flinching when she accidentally pulls his chainmail (“Sorry!”) against what looks to be a horrid burn peeking from between loosened bandages over his shoulders. “Though I suppose if anyone were to find the last dragon left, it would be a Pendragon. There!” The armour does look nice against the close wood grain of her table, burnt and sooty as it is.
“I’ll keep the vambraces and the gauntlets, but I don’t have time to wait for new straps to be fitted. Have you any armour ready-made? Something light. A reinforced jerkin would do.” He pauses, eyes flicking back and forth over thoughts Gwen wouldn’t dare guess at, before say, “And a strong tower shield, as thick as you have and large enough to fully cover a man.”
“Of course, of course,” Gwen murmurs, shuffling towards the back room. “Nothing to that quality, but – “
“That doesn’t matter,” Arthur interjects. “Give me your best and a purse large enough for a week’s worth of food and water for two – for three people, and that will do.”
Her father often tells her she’s something awful at striking a bargain, but Gwen thinks this king just might be worse. She keeps her lips pressed together and tries very hard not to blurt out anything along the lines of But that’s not nearly enough!
“That man I’m looking for. Gwaine. Have you an idea where I might find him?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know anybody by that name,” Gwen says. She shakes her head and doesn’t try to hide the curious, confused frown that melts across her face. “But maybe Lancelot knows.” She turns in her chair and shouts, “Lance, could you come out for a moment?”
“But I was just off to fetch your father, Gwen.” His voice, soft with sleep still, murmurs its way through the hallway into the main house.
“We won’t need him anymore. Just come out here. Someone wants to ask you about a man you might know.”
The sound of Lance padding over the stone floors in his soft leather boots scuffles ahead of him, so Gwen is already smiling as he reaches the open doorway. Crinkles shiver down his face, which is slightly swollen from sleeping for hours with his cheek smashed against a hard pillow. He slept late, but he hadn’t returned home from his patrol until past Gwen’s second sleep, so she’s not surprised. Shame, though – Gwen’s come to love that time between first and second sleep spent with Lance. But it probably wouldn’t have been as fun as it normally is, with him so tired and all. Nor as athletic.
Blood flushes deep into her cheeks and oh, but that’s King Arthur and she shouldn’t be thinking about such things around him because what if he knows?
Gwen stares at the floor, quietly fretting until Lance slots himself against her side. So she completely misses what happens before Arthur’s voice breaks out, harsh in surprise and – indignation?
“You!” he cries, shooting to his feet. Gwen flinches her head up to face him where he stands, before his chair, hand outstretched in a strange hybrid of a pointing finger and open palmed greeting.
Lance tilts his head, mouth slackening in disbelief. Gwen doesn’t really blame him for that, though. The King of Camelot, in their entry room!
“Prince... Prince Arthur?” Lance says.
“King, actually. Or haven’t the messengers arrived yet? But – no, you! The peasant who played at being a knight.”
“Oi!” Gwen shouts. “We’ll have none of that in this house. His heart’s just as noble as yours, if not more.”
Lance folds his hand into hers and squeezes. Arthur stops his huffing and sinks back into himself, eyes shuttering and fluttering, hands twitching at his sides. He shakes himself.
“Of course.” Arthur swallows, staring at the floor as he says, “My apologies.”
“I’m not a knight, for all that it might matter. But you – if you’re looking to find someone,” and here Lance turns to face Gwen, turning back only at her nod, “I can help you with that.”
“Gwaine. I’m looking for a man called Gwaine.”
Warligon at night reeks of sour mead belched from the bellies of the drunk. The air tastes foul and the buildings lean in over Arthur’s head, dark and bloated, folding over the horizon and covering enough of the sky away that Arthur shivers and wishes for his tower views again. Wishes for Camelot, where the sky stretches clear beyond his window and the air springs through slits in the battlements fresh and crisp from the mountains. So many mornings he had once spent in the gentle air of spring atop the battlements, the blue of the sky speckled with puffs of white clouds; the grounds beyond the castle walls downed with grass that grew green with the flush of the morning dew.
“A few more, I should think, before we stop searching tonight,” Lancelot says. “But we’ll find him. No counting how often I’ve had to drag him from the taverns for starting up trouble.”
Arthur doesn’t groan – too many years of Uther’s heavy handed methods of dealing with ‘insubordination’ at the council table training silence into the roots of his throat – but he really does want to. Seven taverns already, and four of them doubling as whorehouses. Tonight, Arthur’s seen more skin than he used to see all winter, when the castle servants whiled away their extra free time by being… intimate… in so many of Arthur’s favourite hiding-from-Uther alcoves.
“Lead on, then,” Arthur says, imperious habit bending command into words that would probably serve Arthur better when phrased as a request. The man is giving Arthur a whole night of time Arthur knows he should be spending leading the militia on their search for a wanted killer. But then, Arthur is king, and Kings don’t make requests, as Uther had once told him. He hadn’t understood, at the time – seven years and a child still, lonely and unfamiliar with the foreign ways of low-born common folk – how being raised to a kingship made him so different.
And though he learned quickly in an afternoon of supervised play that his word truly was more important than any other’s save the king – a toy sword claimed Mine! swiftly plucked from Rhogir’s hand and gentled into Arthur’s confused grip – it hadn’t been until he, newly seventeen, spent an afternoon hiding from attending a dull council on the succession rites of a minor house at a point of strategic value in the south that Arthur had learned in truth how completely different he was from anyone and everyone else.
The afternoon had gentled the sun into an easy rest atop the canopy of lush leaves. Bread and wine and cheese and smoked meats were spread out across a rough woven tablecloth Arthur had had one of the scullery maids snatch from the linens and Emrys loomed close, an inescapable presence along his back. Warm and reassuring, though Arthur hadn’t known what he had needed the reassurance for. The smolder of Emrys’s magic curled against Arthur’s spine and, though he had tried to lounge with a goblet of wine in one hand and a small, loose-bound book in the other, he couldn’t concentrate; Emrys had been whispering to his horse, murmuring blessings in a tongue Arthur knew of, but couldn’t speak, the very words forbidden. The tongue of the Druids, sounding gentle and yet strangled all at the same time. But there was one word he had understood. The one that Emrys used at all times, sometimes at the start or sometimes the ending of the loose and sprawling phrases of foreign words: Rhyddid.
And there, with his eyes caught sluggishly in the script scrawled across the thin leaves of the book Arthur had read and re-read on many a winter’s cold eve, Arthur understood the privilege bound in his blood, so different from the curse flowing through Emrys with every beat of his magic-born heart: both of them set apart from the rest of Camelot and for little more than an accident of birth. And for the first time, he wondered why his gut was telling him it’s not fair.
Lancelot pulls Arthur out and away with a gentle touch on his shoulder, a palm pushing between his shoulder blades. Arthur’s remembered footwork (Bedivere shouting “Shift your weight, and make it fluid, make it light! No, no, shift!”) pulls him along with Lancelot and through the tavern door. A wave of heat slams into him just over the threshold, muggy and thick with sweat. The common room of the alehouse pulls warm strands of the smell of stew over his face, and the press of heat from a hearth fire warms a scattering of heavy wooden tables. People pile over the benches, leaning together over the tables, laughing almost loud enough to smother the sweet sound of a singing lyre.
The room softens at Lancelot’s advance, shouts dulling and pointing arms retracted, though the light mood of happy camaraderie stays put. Not at all the reaction Arthur and the citadel’s guard had ever garnered – in the prince’s wake, eyes would sink to the floor as though weighted with lead and conversation would flicker, spasm, and die away. Smoldering until the moment Arthur had left the room, whereupon it would leap up again, born of regained freedom. And so it will always be, for a boy born with a king’s blood.
And though he knows exactly what his father would have said of Lancelot’s easy way through the crowd, it’s how Lancelot’s “Gwaine been through here yet, Percy?” pulls an answer so easily from the relaxed barkeep that has Arthur thinking that perhaps Lancelot’s soft ingratiation into the lives of the common folk might be a more worthwhile approach.
The barkeep nods towards the large hearth and says, “Been sat in that corner with a bowl of stew, a hunk of bread, and a flagon of pale mead. Just the one flagon in the three candlemarks he’s been sat there.”
Lancelot tilts his head up and his eyes down, eyebrows hitching in disbelief.
“I know, I know,” Percy says in answer to the question so obvious (to everyone but Arthur, standing solemn and very much not at all confused) that it hadn’t needed voicing. “Shocked me to silence, it did. Been gentling that one flagon down his throat this whole time. Not a dram more. Kept asking the scop to tell him a story of justice won.”
The man sitting on the hearth looks young, for all that a sickly pallor hitches down his cheeks under tracks of dried sweat. Fire-glow limns his profile and crackles through the dark blur of his eyes. He startles at Lancelot’s gentle pull on his shoulder, wobbles a bit like it’s a movement born of a habit of unsteadiness rather than an actual difficulty staying balanced.
Arthur sneers down at him. This man, this Gwaine, the son of a king and the incarnation of the ancient sword of Strength, if the Druids told it right. His fingers gather in Lancelot’s sleeve, tugging him to the side before either man can address the other.
“Are you sure this… this man is the only Gwaine living in town?” Arthur whispers, harsh and hissing between his teeth.
“Oi, my ears are working plenty fine!” the man rasps out, jerking the hand holding his ale out to point accusingly at Arthur, pale liquid spraying over the sides of the flagon with the force of it. “And who’re you, to ask for Gwaine?”
“A king, on the hunt for one of his citizens,” Arthur spits. “And here you are, in all your glory.”
A flush – permanently stitched to his skin, from the looks of it – burns its way down Gwaine’s cheeks. The ale splashed from his flagon spreads itself dark along the inseam of his trousers, curling around stains older and darker. Blood? Or the repeated stains of sweat from clothes worn from drunken stupor to drunken stupor, no time for washing in between? Sweat stains soak the underarms of his tunic and this is his fated brother in arms. Muscles twitch in Arthur’s cheeks and he lets his lips curl as his eyes sweep back up to Gwaine’s face.
“I had imagined that the strength to my courage would be of a more… noble bearing.”
Gwaine snarls, silent, and snaps, “Takes more than fine clothes and a gold hilted sword and the hypocritical crest of a dragon to make a noble, Arthur Pendragon. And even more than that to make a king.”
Arthur opens his mouth wide, angry and vicious with it, because how dare he talk about Arthur like he’s seen everything that’s made him who he is? Like he knows how deep Uther’s lessons once scored into him, and how recently they’ve starting fading into half-remembered scars. Like he’s heard the whispers echoing in Arthur’s mind, soft and wistful and bright with the tang of lingering magic, that made him start thinking so long ago that maybe his father didn’t have the right way of anything at all.
But Lancelot speaks up first.
“Please, Gwaine.” Voice soft as his dark eyes, and even Arthur would be honoured to fight by this man’s side. (Why can’t he be the strength Arthur needs?) “This could be the calling you’ve been waiting for.”
Arthur breathes (eyes closed, nostrils flared, and there it hits him – the bitter bright of magic that clings to this unwashed drunkard, familiar in its sharp taste and almost warm as it resonates through his chest) and calms himself before saying, “Noble or not, I’m going to be tracking down a dangerous sorcerer, and it is your duty as a man of – “ Arthur breaks off, cannot help the sneer sliding across his face as he lets his eyes track from Gwaine’s boots, worn out and wet with horse piss from the gutters, up to his greasy hair – “honour.”
“I don’t owe any of my honour to any man who doesn’t deserve it. Didn’t give my brute of a father any, and I won’t give you any neither.” Gwaine snorts a laugh and pulls his legs up onto the hearth, locking his arms around his knees in an easy movement and leaning comfortably back against the wide stonework. The message could not be more clear. “Gods blessing on you in finding someone else to play your strength. I hear there’s a man wandering around the east end who has all the strength of on ox. Quiet, too. Not prone to voicing dissent, so you should like him just fine. Now leave me alone.”
“So that’s it? Going to go back to your drink and ignore your duty, to your king and to the people of Camelot?”
“To my king, yes, but mate, you’re not looking after your people, for all your fancy vows. I’ve seen a man – a sorcerer, one of them you like to behead unless they’ve been broken beyond free thought – more like a champion of the people than you not a week past. If he would have asked,” Gwaine mumbles into his mug, “I’d have gone in a moment. But no, had to fly off all dramatic like. Should have known someone named Merlin would be a show off.”
Arthur stops turning to go and says, “Wait, Merlin? Did he… did he actually fly off? Tell me, what did he look like.” At Gwaine’s suspicious glare, Arthur tacks on, “The Crown is not above utilizing the skills of talented sorcerers.”
The wrong thing to say, apparently. Gwaine’s face becomes a fierce, bitter thing, eyes haunted with furrowed lines, but he can’t seem to stop himself from saying, “He looked as a champion ought. Not a pretty-boy like you at all, princess.”
(“It’s king,” Arthur says through gritted teeth. Gwaine ignores him.)
“Merlin had the skin of a fighter. Scarred hands – broken, once upon a time, and I wish I got that story. Or then, maybe I oughtn’t – and a scarred face to match. Knife fight, maybe, or a fist fight with someone wearing plated gauntlets.”
Or – what Arthur is almost sure actually gave Emrys those strange, hooking scars – a stay in the dungeons under careful watch of King Uther’s favoured interrogator. A blessing that Gwaine, for all his professed cynicism, has too much goodness in his heart to allow his mind to jump to that conclusion. (Crowns aren’t all that sons inherit from their fathers.) There might be a way for Arthur to persuade Gwaine to the cause, because if he’s so attached to Merlin, to Emrys, and if he spent time with the Druids, then perhaps…
“I was told by one of my knights – Owain, your cousin, unless I’m mistaken – that the Druids have a special name for you. For Gwaine, son of King Lot, self-professed champion of the people who hasn’t done his fair share of championing these last few years. They still believe in you, though,” Arthur says over Gwaine’s wordless objections. “I spent some time talking with the Druids living in the Forest of Ascetir. They call you Strength, and they say that your time has come, Gwaine of Orkney. That in the stars your sign has risen. Ceridwen thought you would come willingly.”
“Ceridwen? With Aneirin and her little babe, Bran? Or I suppose he would be almost a man now.”
“She thought well of you. While she and the other councilmen were begging – demanding, really – that I seek out and stop the sorcerer, she insisted I find you. So certain you wouldn’t remain idle, in hiding, forever. I will be sad to disillusion her.”
Gwaine sits still a long moment, eyes roving over sights that for Arthur will remain unseen. The lute plays soft in the background, a gentle lull meant to play sleepy children to their beds. Arthur remembers the tune well – the last he was permitted to hear before being trundled off to bed by some nurse or other. But Gwaine doesn’t seem to find it all that tiring to listen to – he shakes his head twice before standing, face shadowed in relief of the yellow fire behind him, and saying,
“If the Druids need him found, then I – well, then I’m coming with you.”
“No, Gwaine. The cape stays.”
“But – look, you tosser, it’s burnt and it’s falling to pieces and it can’t keep you all that warm, anymore.”
“It’s gone black around the edges, Gwaine.” Eyes forward, voice dry and uninflected. “But it’s still fur lined, and it’s still made of heavy wool. I think it’ll live through another few April nights.”
“And besides that, if we’re trying to capture an all-powerful warlock, don’t you think we could use a more… a stealthier approach? I love a brawl as much as the next bloke, but for some reason I don’t think brute strength is going to win us this match.”
“Oh, and I suppose you know a thing or two about stealth, do you? I’ve heard stories about you from every tavern in Warligon. You don’t exactly pass undetected.”
“Oi, I may have made a scene or two in Warligon, but outside of the city walls, I’ve a leg up on you. Ran with the druids for long enough to learn a thing or two about walking sight-unseen. Not at all like you fancy Camelot ponces, with your bright red kill-me capes and shiny metal strapped everywhere you can persuade it to stay.”
“But regardless – don’t you see? That’s what we want. We want for him to find us.”
“And what, exactly, are you planning on doing when he does?” Gwaine smiles wide, threat glittering in his eyes. “I don’t mind long chances, princess, but I’d appreciate knowing your plan for me goes beyond ‘distract the all-powerful sorcerer.’”
“Have a little trust, Gwaine,” Arthur says. He flicks the reins of his horse in his hand and urges Hengroen on, under the arching of the trees that wave green hands against the sun. “My plan for you goes at least a bit beyond ‘distraction.’”
Arthur looks back, smiling because he has to; because if he doesn’t, the uncertainty and helplessness and fear will flood across his whole face. Not one man will follow a leader beset by fear, Uther had told him, once, on a day when the sun was bright and the training field filled with men Arthur was still learning to command. So you never let them know you have ever felt any at all.
Arthur looks back, and smiles at how Gwaine frowns and shakes his head and grumbles and sighs.