Chapter 1: Prologue: The Escetians Invade
Sir Alwyn raised his torch, peering into the night as he made his way through the underbrush. His falcon Eolhsand was asleep on his shoulder, her talons linked through the rings of his maille and secured to his arm with a leather lead. He nearly tripped over a root, grumbling under his breath as he righted himself. As tensions grew between Camelot and Escetir, King Uther had re-instated border patrols at all hours, and Alwyn had the dubious honor of being captain of the night shift. In the distance he could see the flickers of other campfires, studded along the border like fiery rubies on a chain. He rubbed his eyes and sighed, his thoughts straying to a warm campfire at his back and a flagon of ale by his side.
Most would not have heard the faint rustle of undergrowth in the night, or attributed it to the wind, but Alwyn knew better than to dismiss such a noise while on patrol. He aimed his torch in the direction of the sound, taking a step towards it. The forest remained eerily still, only increasing Alwyn’s suspicion. He drew his sword with his free hand, causing Eolhsand to flutter sleepily at the disturbance. Shushing the falcon, Alwyn crept forward slowly.
Suddenly, three men loomed out of the darkness, shadows etched in malicious lines across their faces and teeth shining in the torchlight. Alwyn gasped, instinctively taking a step backward. He was no fool - he could not win a three-on-one fight even in the best of circumstances. And so he turned and fled towards the camp, hoping he could raise an alarm before it was too late. As he ran, he untied Eolhsand’s lead and removed her hood, letting her hop onto his thick leather glove before she took off into the air. Alwyn kept a small scroll bound to the falcon’s foot at all times, and she knew to fly straight for the castle. However, his foot caught under a root as he ran, and Alwyn tumbled to the ground. An arrow whizzed by Eolhsand, but she flew with haste and was soon out of range.
Alwyn stared defiantly up at the soldiers. All three bore the black snake of Escetir on their tabards. From behind them emerged a man with long dark hair and a trimmed beard, the only sign of his station a thin circlet on his brow. Around him swirled a velvety cloak that seemed to absorb the light cast by Alwyn’s torch, wreathing its bearer in shadow.
“Now all of Camelot knows you’re here, Cenred,” Alwyn snarled, as the faint sounds of shouting drifted through the wind. He knew that Eolhsand would be easily spotted by the other camps, and that her flight would be a message in itself. The alarm had been successfully raised even if Eolhsand did not make it to the castle. From the angry expressions on the other men’s faces, Alwyn guessed they knew it as well. However, their leader merely chuckled, drawing his sword with a long metallic scrape.
“Excellent.” Cenred placed his foot over Alwyn’s torch, which was extinguished with a hiss. In the faint moonlight, his sword gleamed as he swung it down towards the knight.
To his credit, Sir Alwyn did not scream as he died.
“Sire, the Escetians have invaded Camelot!” Sir Leon burst into the throne room, bowing hastily before resting his hands on his knees and panting.
“What?” Agravaine cried. “That’s impossible!” He turned to King Uther, who was seated on his throne. However, Uther dismissively waved him into silence, and indicated that Leon should continue his report.
“We’ll set up defenses around the castle,” Leon continued. “King Cenred himself is leading the attack.”
“No. The castle is too well fortified to give me cause for concern. We must protect the surrounding country, in order to maintain our resources.” Uther scowled, and placed a hand on his chin in thought. “Our ranks have been depleted by border skirmishes - conscription is our only option. Recruit one man from every household to serve in Camelot’s army. We don’t have the time and resources to train more knights, not anymore. Foot soldiers will have to do.”
Agravaine bowed, before heading off to carry out Uther’s orders.
“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” asked Leon, “Do you not think the knights will be enough?”
Uther stared thoughtfully into the distance. “ ‘Enough’ does not win wars.”
Chapter 2: The Evaluation of Guinevere Smith
Guinevere bent over her work, careful blows shaping a sheet of metal into a breastplate as she toiled. The ringing clash of hammer on metal almost covered the sound of the bell tolling the hour, and Gwen looked up in surprise. With a small curse, she quickly bundled away her piece and ran out the door, where she nearly collided with her father.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” She asked, flustered.
Tom shook his head. “I’ve got work to do,” he replied before a hacking cough rattled his frame. He leaned on the doorway as Gwen patted his shoulder soothingly.
“Don’t forget to drink your potion from Gaius.” Gwen gestured at the vial that stood at her father’s bedside. Years of inhaling the forge’s smoke had given her father a nasty cough, and there were days where he was forced to lie in bed due to his illness. Gaius’s potions kept his coughing fits at bay, but only with daily consumption. Tom nodded, uncorking the potion and swallowing it with a grimace.
“Aren’t you going to be late?” He raised an eyebrow with a smile. “Your lady promised she would hold a dress aside for you, and you always complain how hard it is to put one of those on.”
“Oh, yes, right!” Gwen pecked her father on the cheek, before hurrying out the door.
“Good luck!” Tom called after her. He made his way back into their small house, coughing again. As sweet as Gwen was, he still knew that a blacksmith’s daughter was fairly low on the castle’s pecking order. However, there were many wealthy merchants in town seeking wives, and one of them was bound to see the innate goodness in her. Tom pulled out Gwen’s unfinished piece with a sigh and started to re-heat it. He had hoped his daughter would be able to marry for love as he had, but he wanted her to be able to live the life she deserved - one he could not provide. Perhaps a good marriage would let her do so.
“Gwen? Gwen, where are you?” Morgana stood by the door, tapping her foot. However, despite her impatience there was no rancor in the gesture, even when Gwen appeared, flustered and with a smudge of soot on her cheek.
“Sorry, My Lady,” she apologized with a quick curtsey. Morgana gestured to a bath, partially covered by a sliding screen.
“I had you a bath drawn,” Morgana said with pride. “It would’ve been warm if you had been here early, though.”
“My Lady, I couldn’t possibly-”
Morgana waved away Gwen’s protests. “Nonsense! You’ve been such a good friend to me, Gwen, and you’ve gone over and above your duties so many times I’ve lost count. You’ve earned this, and I can’t remember the last time I did anyone’s hair. It’ll be fun,” she pleaded.
“Alright,” Gwen agreed with a smile. She pulled off her dress behind the screen, and entered the water with a sigh. Morgana was right - the bath had gone cold, but Gwen luxuriated in it anyway. Morgana appeared with a small bottle of oil, which she methodically worked through Gwen’s hair.
“Have you got her eye on anyone?” She teased. Gwen blushed and ducked her head.
“No, but I hear that there are many fine young men out there. I just hope one of them finds me good enough.”
Morgana laughed, a clear ringing sound. “You’re too good for all of them put together, my dear Gwen.”
Gwen dried herself off and slipped on her best petticoat, as Morgana lay out a beautiful periwinkle-colored dress. Gwen ran her fingers along the fine wool with a faint smile.
“Remember,” Morgana said soothingly. “Nobody has plans to betroth you on the spot, it’s just like - like an audition. Once Lady Catrina has gotten the measure of you, you’ll be fine.” She smiled, pleased with her own advice. Gwen managed to return the smile, despite the complicated knot her stomach was tying itself in. What if she spilled something? What if she wasn’t worth a good dowry? What if she wasn’t good enough?
Morgana could practically see the worried thoughts churning in Gwen’s head, and sighed with frustration.
“Enough, Gwen,” she chided. “You’ll do splendidly, I’m sure.”
Gwen carefully picked up the dress and guided it over her head, careful not to snag the seams. She looked at herself in the mirror as Morgana finished lacing the back, and then moved to fuss over her hair. Done up with a hint of blush and small metal ornaments in her curls, Gwen barely recognized herself. It wasn’t that she disliked feminine things - in fact, she enjoyed the rare chances where she got to devote a little extra time to her appearance. However, being done up and paraded around like a show horse felt unnatural somehow, like a caged bird that was clearly meant to be flying free.
“You look stunning, Gwen,” proclaimed Morgana, hands on her hips as she surveyed her handiwork. “You’ll let me know how it goes?”
“Absolutely.” Gwen did her best to get up without dislodging her hairdo. “I really can’t thank you enough, Morgana.”
“Pish, you can thank me later. Now, go make us proud.” Morgana shooed Gwen out the door with a smile, before turning back to her needlepoint.
Standing in line with several other nervous young women, Gwen fought the urge to shift from foot to foot. The walk through the citadel had attracted more glances than she had anticipated, making her feel rather self-conscious. She had ducked her head and hurried towards the square, but now she held her chin high as she waited. To her left, a few girls tittered, but immediately quieted when a woman strutted into the square. She had a high white collar that Gwen found frankly ludicrous, and her hair piled even higher. Lady Catrina surveyed the prospective brides, hands on her hips.
“Well,” she proclaimed loudly. “You are here for me to pass judgement on your eligibility as a good wife. Many of you will be found wanting.”
Gwen’s eyes widened, but she quickly ducked her head as Lady Catrina’s gaze landed on her. The older woman practically brandished a scroll in her direction, and flicked it open before letting it snap shut.
“First, Guinevere Smith!” Catrina screeched. Gwen bobbed a quick curtsey before scurrying over to Catrina. She assumed her best “docile serving maid” pose, hands clasped in front of her with her head bowed.
“My Lady,” she said quietly. Catrina merely sniffed, nose in the air as she jerked her head for Gwen to follow. Gwen walked two steps behind her through a small door, barely stopping herself from bumping into the other woman. Catrina spun on her heel, and tipped Gwen’s chin up with her fingers.
“Got all your teeth?” She asked, squeezing Gwen’s cheeks. Gwen bared her teeth in answer, and Catrina nodded. “Good.” She had Gwen lift her arms, running a hand over them skeptically.
“Hm, too muscular. Hips could be wider.” Gwen fought the urge to roll her eyes as Catrina systematically inspected her, feeling like a horse in the stables.
“As a wife, you will be expected to serve your husband,” Catrina said, grabbing Gwen’s hand and flouncing over to a table. Gwen stifled a gasp as Catrina withdrew her hand - she had placed it on a soot stain Gwen had missed, and now her hand was covered in a large black mark. However, Catrina did not notice, even as she stroked her hand over her chin. Gwen stared in horror as Catrina gestured at a teapot and two cups, now resembling the bearded woman that had come through with a troupe a few years ago.
“Pour,” she ordered. Gwen nearly missed the teacup, but quickly corrected herself as Catrina watched.
“Pardon me,” she began, intending to point out the older woman’s new moustache, but Catrina stared her down.
“A good wife is also silent!”
Gwen pursed her lips to keep from laughing at Catrina’s overly dainty method of sipping her tea, which sharply contrasted with the sooty beard she now wore.
“Is something funny?” The elder woman asked with acid in her voice. Gwen quickly shook her head.
“No, my Lady.” Gwen quietly stood up and began stoking the fire, heating the water over it to a nice boil. However, she did not notice that her heel had caught on one of Lady Catrina’s trailing sleeves. “More tea?”
Catrina extended her cup, but as she did, Gwen’s foot stopped it short, and the tea splashed across her front. She gasped in horror as the brown stain made its way across her pristine white dress. “Why, you little-!”
She didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence as Gwen dashed forward, foot still tangled in Catrina’s sleeve. The action caused the older woman to topple over, catching the edge of her hair in the fire. She let out a shriek and began dancing around, swatting ineffectively at her head.
“Put it out! Put it out!” She wailed, and Gwen cast about desperately for a pot of water. Finding none, she grabbed the teapot and upended it over Lady Catrina’s head. The fire extinguished itself with a hiss, but the smoldering glare Catrina was giving Gwen could have easily reignited it.
“Get out,” she seethed, “And never show your face here again. I’ll see to it that you’ll never find a husband, if it’s the last thing I do!”
Gwen took one last look at Catrina, smoking slightly and covered in tea, and bolted out the door.
Chapter 3: War Comes to Camelot
Gwen ran down the cobblestone street, sleeves flying and tears streaking her face. The tiny adornments in her hair tinkled to the ground like musical raindrops, leaving a trail of silver behind her. She made a beeline straight for her house, and burst through the door. Tom looked up in surprise as Gwen entered, his mouth open slightly. With a sob, Gwen launched herself into his arms, her shoulders shaking as she wept.
“There, there,” Tom soothed, stroking Gwen’s back. “There’s nothing to worry about, my duck. Just because it didn’t go well today, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.”
Gwen pulled back and wiped her tears, giving her father a watery smile. Despite the pain she felt, she knew he was right. Today wasn’t the end of the world - she would just have to wait until everyone forgot about the spectacle she had caused.
Returning to her room, Gwen changed into her more casual dress, wincing at the mess she had made. The hem of Morgana’s dress was stained with mud, and the sleeves smudged with makeup. Gwen sighed and folded it into a neat square, placing it in her basket to wash tomorrow. She was about to head to the smithy when she heard a commotion outside, and went to look. Tom joined her outside the forge, where a small crowd had gathered. Agravaine was there, mounted on a black stallion, holding a large scroll while a servant stood behind him carrying several small ones.
“Citizens of Camelot, I bring you a proclamation from King Uther Pendragon,” Agravaine called. “The Escetians have invaded Camelot!”
All around Gwen, townspeople gasped in horror, turning to each other with low murmurs of concern. Gwen put a hand to her mouth, while Tom’s face turned as hard as the steel he forged.
“By order of the King, one man from each family must serve in Camelot’s army. Step forward to be counted. The Wrens!”
A man of about Tom’s age stepped forward, the deep tan of his skin and breadth of his shoulders marking him as a farmer.
This time, it was a boy of barely sixteen who made his way towards Agravaine, scared but determined.
“My father is injured, so I will serve in his place.” His voice cracked on the final word, but Agravaine handed him the scroll anyway.
Tom straightened his shoulders as best he could, and walked towards Agravaine with slow but strong steps.
“I am ready to serve Camelot,” he said, and bowed his head. Gwen gasped, and pushed her way through the crowd to follow him.
“Please, Sire, you can’t make him go!” She positioned herself between her father and Agravaine, who looked down at her disdainfully. “My father’s work as a blacksmith makes him too ill to serve, please let him stay here and forge armor instead!”
Agravaine merely sniffed. “You would do well to teach your girl her place,” he said to Tom, scorn dripping from his words. Gwen clenched her fists angrily, but did not respond.
“Gwen, go inside.” Tom’s voice was soft, but it cut through the low commotion and pierced Gwen’s chest like a knife. Nodding, she retreated to the house, but continued to watch from the window as Agravaine’s servant handed her father his conscription notice.
“Report tomorrow to the Caelfall camp.”
Tom nodded in acknowledgment and began to return to his house, his shoulders shaking as he struggled to hide his coughs. Behind him, Agravaine continued to list names.
Gwen stood in the entryway of the forge quietly, watching her father. She had been about to call him home for dinner, when she realized she was interrupting him. Tom stood in the middle of the room, dressed in a breastplate and holding his old sword. She watched as he twirled it slowly, then with more confidence, going through moves she had seen the knights of Camelot practice in their drills. However, he only made it through a few manoeuvres before a fit of coughing seized him, and her hunched over, letting the sword fall from his hands. Gwen retreated into the shadows, hoping that her father hadn’t seen her watching his moment of infirmity. She waited until Tom had caught his breath, then stepped into the room.
“Dinner’s ready,” she said lightly. Tom’s face broke into a faint grin, and he followed his daughter into their shared area.
Dinner passed in tense silence, until Gwen could simply bear it no more.
“You shouldn’t have to go!” she exclaimed, slamming her spoon down for emphasis. “There are plenty of young men willing to fight for Camelot. Besides, nobody makes steel as well as you do!”
“It’s an honor to be chosen for Camelot’s army,” Tom said, his quietness of his voice hiding its conviction.
Gwen shook her head stubbornly. “So much of an honor that you’re willing to die for it?!”
“I’m doing what’s right ,” Tom replied, his voice raised. “If my death stops innocent men, women, and children from being butchered by the Escetians, then I will gladly lay down my life for Camelot!”
“I know what I believe in!” Tom thundered, pushing himself up from the table. “What do you believe?”
Gwen gasped, her hand moving towards her mouth before she brought it back down to her side in a clenched fist. She started at her father defiantly, blinking rapidly to keep her tears from falling. Tom returned the stare, firm and unyielding.
Opening her mouth to protest once more, Gwen thought the better of it and stormed outside. Tom stretched out his hand after his daughter, sensing he had crossed a line, but the gesture came too late. Outside, a rumble of thunder rolled across the evening sky.
Gwen sat in the small alley behind her house, face tilted towards the clouds as she let the rain wash over her. The raindrops mingled with her tears, hanging heavy on her eyelashes and trickling down her cheeks. As she sat, she silently implored any gods that might be listening, from the Old Religion or New, for advice. She simply couldn’t let her father go to war - he was the only family she had left, after her mother passed and Elyan had -
Gwen’s eyes snapped open, and she leveled her head. All sorrow was gone, replaced by a fierce determination that would have given any enemy pause. She stood up slowly, the rain coursing down her figure as she strode with purpose back into the house. Turning the corner, Gwen paused at her father’s bedside, looking down fondly at his sleeping figure. She turned to his nightstand, where his conscription notice lay. She took it in her hand, replacing it with the small necklace he had forged for her when she was young. Hopefully he will understand , Gwen wished as she left his room.
Standing before the small mirror in her room, Gwen breathed out hard, a pair of shears in her hand. She gathered her hair into a tight ponytail, before snipping it off at the nape of her neck. Black curls tumbled to the floor as Gwen methodically worked her way around her head, leaving only a few inches of hair on her scalp. Squaring her shoulders, Gwen exhaled again, brushing the last remnants of her hair from her clothes. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it would have to do. She slipped her dress over her head, caressing it with one last fond smile before shrugging on a tunic and a pair of wool trousers. A coat of maille hung over the forge, and Gwen donned it, buckling a spare sword around her waist. She took pains to make sure her waist and shoulders were padded, so that from a distance her figure would look more masculine. Pulling a cloak over her head, she made her way towards the castle. If she was going to do this, she would need help.
Tom couldn’t say what awoke him; perhaps the thunder, or the faint rattle of the shutters. He turned over to light a candle, only to see Gwen’s necklace lying on his nightstand. Placing a hand over his mouth in horror, Tom let the chain slip through his fingers and clatter to the ground.
“Oh, Gwen,” he whispered. “Brave, brave Gwen. What have you done?” A fit of coughing shook him, but the tears that formed in his eyes were from an entirely different sort of pain.
Chapter 4: Gwen Seeks Merlin's Help
“Merlin!” Gwen hissed.
An unintelligible mumble emerged from the lump of clothes on the bed.
“Merlin, it’s me! Wake up!”
“Gwen?” Merlin blinked blearily. “What happened to your hair?”
“I need you to get me to the Caelfall Camp tomorrow,” Gwen said under her breath. “You’re the only one I trust.”
Merlin scratched his head. “Why me?”
“Because you’re my friend, and Arthur’s taking you with him to lead the training, right?”
Gwen rolled her eyes. “Will you help me, yes or no?”
“Yes, all right,” Merlin groaned. “Why do you even want to go there?”
“I’m taking my father’s place in Camelot’s army.” The statement hung in the air for a long second as Merlin processed it.
“Er,” he finally managed. “They haven’t suddenly started accepting women, have they?”
Gwen shook her head. “I’m going in disguised as my brother Elyan.” She indicated her suit of maille and short hair. “I know it’s not very good, but I have to try.”
“You never mentioned a brother.”
“He - he left, a year before you arrived in Camelot.” Gwen took a deep breath. “Odds are, he’s not coming back any time soon.” Even after four years, the pain in that fact still stung. “But if he suddenly returns...”
“He can take Tom’s place,” Merlin finished, realization dawning on his face. “Oh, Gwen. You can’t, they’ll kill you if you’re discovered.”
Gwen held up a hand to stop her friend. “When are you leaving?”
“Just before dawn,” Merlin replied. “I’ll make sure that there’s a spare horse for you. In the meantime, I’ll see what else I can do with my magic.”
“I can’t ask you to use your-” Gwen hesitated, “ other talents to help,” she continued under her breath, but Merlin shook his head.
“I could do a simple glamour,” he explained. “I can enchant a necklace, that way I don’t need to worry about the spell’s upkeep. If you’re risking your life, it’s the least I can do.”
“Thank you, Merlin,” Gwen breathed, wrapping Merlin in an impromptu hug. “I’ll see you in a few hours.” With that, she slipped out of Merlin’s chamber, her cloak flapping in her wake.
Sir Willis winced as he was thrown to the ground, unable to stop his fall with his hands tied behind his back. Next to him, Sir Geraint hit the dirt a split second later, scowling up at their captors. A laugh went up as the Escetians formed a ring around them, King Cenred striding into the circle and crouching next to the two knights.
“Scouts, eh?” he asked jovially. Sir Willis scowled at the Escetian king as he idly fingered the knight’s red cloak. “Congratulations - you’ve done your job well. Here we are.”
“Camelot will stop you,” Geraint said stoutly. Cenred merely chuckled, shaking his head like one would with an errant child. He lunged forward, grabbing Geraint by the throat.
“Stop me? Uther practically invited me.” Geraint wheezed and struggled in Cenred’s grasp, and the king threw him to the ground like a discarded bone. “Expanding his borders, sending patrols right to the edge of my territory - it challenges my strength!”
Cenred stood up, pacing around the circle like a wild animal. “Well, if Uther wants to play his little game, I’ll gladly join.” He pulled a dagger from his belt, and Willis and Geraint braced themselves for the end. However, Cenred cut their bonds, and roughly pulled the knights to their feet.
“Go,” he ordered. “Tell King Uther to send his strongest armies. I’m ready.” Willis and Geraint immediately turned and fled, their red cloaks flapping. Cenred stroked his chin thoughtfully. He turned to a blonde woman with kohl-lined eyes who was standing at his side.
“How many men does it take to send a message?”
Morgause smiled wickedly, a fireball flaring to life in her hands. “Just one.”
Chapter 5: To be a Man
True to Merlin’s word, a mud-brown mare was tied outside the citadel when Gwen emerged. It wasn’t Gwen’s first choice of mount, but she would have to make do. Making sure a sword was at her side and all her armor properly fastened, Gwen mounted the horse and rode out the gates. She hunched over her mare, their breaths mingling in a cloud of white as they rode north. The first rays of sun were just beginning to peek over the horizon as she arrived at Caelfall, stopping just on the outskirts of the camp. A small figure rode out to meet her, resolving itself into Merlin. He passed her a small wooden charm on a cord, a rune engraved on its back.
“To everyone else, you should look like a man,” he said, voice low. “But remember, the glamour only works if you have the necklace on. Otherwise, you’ll be shown for who you really are.”
Gwen nodded, and looped the necklace over her head. It nestled beneath her maille, warm against her chest.
“How do I look?” she asked hopefully. To her surprise, a faint echo of her voice sounded after she spoke, only the pitch was lower.
Merlin shrugged. “I don’t know, it won’t work on me since I’m the one who enchanted it.”
“I guess we’ll find out.” Gwen nudged her horse into action, Merlin trotting along beside her.
“Now remember,” he lectured. “Spit when you run, walk with your feet pointing out, not in, make jokes about their mothers, and above all, do not giggle.”
“Stop it!” Gwen hissed, swatting Merlin on the arm. “You’re making me nervous!”
“Punch, not slap,” corrected Merlin. “It’s more manly.”
Gwen made a face. “I’ve seen the way men act; I can handle myself. How do you know all of this anyway?”
“No, you’ve seen how the knights act.” Merlin made the face back at Gwen. “Normal soldiers are a lot more rough-and-tumble. I’ve seen Arthur train foot soldiers before, they can be...undisciplined.”
Gwen snorted. “That’s one way of putting it.”
Merlin unsubtly nudged Gwen forward to where a group of soldiers and knights were playing some sort of dice game. One man with a shaggy head of hair and hooked nose was clearly winning by the way he snatched the coins off the board.
“That’s three shillings I’ve won off you now, Valiant,” he crowed as he tucked the coins into his pocket. “You’d best step it up, otherwise I’ll be taking your knighthood as well.” Beside him, a veritable giant of a man snorted, but he was still smiling.
“Knock it off, Perce,” the shorter man said, and elbowed him in the side. “Let’s have one more round, then.” Valiant sneered at him, but he still reached into his purse to pull out a few more coins.
“Alright, Gwaine , call my bluff.”
Intrigued, Gwen stepped forward to watch.
“Lucky number six!” Gwaine called, rattling the dice in his hand. He cast them across the board, where they tumbled into Valiant’s own set...and fell to sixes. Gwaine whooped and lifted his fists in victory, accepting cheers and handshakes as he turned to the gathered crowd. Buffeted by the gathered men, Gwen found herself knocked about, until her hip bumped into the board and upset the dice. A groan went up, but quickly dissipated when the men noticed Gwaine’s dice still showed sixes. Pushing his way forward, Valiant deliberately knocked the board again, and yet Gwaine’s dice tauntingly still showed twelve points.
“You used loaded dice!” Valiant accused, shoving a finger in Gwaine’s face. Gwaine’s grin faltered momentarily, and he instinctively moved towards Percival.
“Er...well...I got them from a woman, come to think of it, she might’ve been, hah, not entirely honest…” An awkward silence hung in the air as Valiant’s eyelid twitched, before his fingers curled into a fist and he swung a haymaker at Gwaine. The other man ducked out of the way, and Valiant’s blow connected solidly with the man behind him , sending him sprawling to the ground. Not ones to see their friend suffer, two more men immediately jumped Valiant, and chaos instantly erupted.
Covering her head with her hands, Gwen did her best to weave towards the edge of the battle, shoving the occasional combatant when she couldn’t elbow her way through. However, her efforts seemed to have only the opposite effect, and she soon found herself in the middle of the melee. Something solid collided with her back, and Gwen found herself back to back with Percival, who was plowing through Valiant’s friends like it was his job. Welcoming the bit of shelter, Gwen did her best to defend herself and consequently Percival’s back, wincing as she felt her knuckles collide with somebody else’s nose.
Meanwhile, Arthur sat inside his tent across from Agravaine and Uther, the three of them poring over a map of the area.
“I will personally lead two battalions of knights toward the forest,” Uther said, indicating a spot on the map. “Arthur, you will stay here and oversee the training of the new recruits. Effective immediately, you are now acting as Camelot’s Captain of the Guard.”
“This is quite the responsibility your father has tasked you with,” Agravaine said, nose raised. “As such, I will remain with you, and send him reports. Very detailed reports.”
Arthur nodded eagerly. “I promise I won’t let you down, Father.” Remembering his composure, he straightened his shoulders and solidified his expression. Uther nodded, satisfied.
“Good. I will expect the first report in three weeks.” So saying, he strode out of the tent, ignoring the chaos of the brawling soldiers as he mounted his horse and galloped away. Arthur raised his eyebrows at the pandemonium engulfing the camp, while Agravaine merely began noting things on his ever-present scroll.
“ENOUGH!” The shout rose above the din like a thunderclap, causing the men to freeze like guilty schoolboys. Arthur strode out onto the campfield, Merlin following innocently at his side as if he hadn’t been watching the brawl with glee only minutes before. Almost instantly, the recruits formed a circle around where Gwen and her new companions stood, panting and dishevelled.
“They started it!” The men chorused, the occasional pointing finger emerging to clarify the accusation. Arthur rolled his eyes, before striding up and down the line.
“I don’t need troublemakers in my camp,” Arthur said sternly. “What are all of your names?”
“G...um...Elyan. Elyan Smith!” Gwen gulped. She’d only ever seen Arthur from a distance, having mainly been preoccupied with serving Morgana at the time. If he had been good-looking from afar, up close he looked even better, with his chiseled jaw and clear blue eyes. Arthur frowned at Gwen, and tapped his fingers on his chin.
“Smith, is it? Uncle, let me see the conscription records.” Agravaine withdrew a scroll, which Arthur quickly unrolled and scanned. “It says here that Tom was conscripted. I wasn’t aware he had a son.”
“I’ve been away...traveling,” Gwen offered. “I only just returned to Camelot a few days ago.” She smiled nervously. “You know how it is, all that pent up energy, sometimes you just...have to...hit something.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Well,” he announced, “Thanks to your friend Elyan, you will all spend the rest of the evening making sure this camp is absolutely spotless.”
A collective groan went up from the gathered men, and Gwen felt many death glares directed at her back. She’d always considered herself diplomatic, but it would truly test her limits to get out of this mess.
“Oi, Gwen! Wake up!”
Gwen pulled her blanket over her head, groaning at the sound of Merlin’s voice. However, Merlin was not deterred, and snatched the blanket away. Sitting up blearily, Gwen glared at her friend.
“Come on, the soldiers just left!” Merlin began frantically tossing articles of clothing at Gwen, before pulling his head out of the tent entrance. “Get changed, and fast!”
Barely stifling a shriek, Gwen changed as fast as she could, buckling on her sword as she rushed out of the tent.
Gwen ran back to Merlin and slipped the charm over her head, just as she approached where the rest of the soldiers were gathered. Noticing her approach, Gwaine nonchalantly strolled up to her, sporting a fresh black eye.
“Hello, Elyan,” he said conversationally. “Slept in, did we?”
“I see.” Gwaine examined his fingernails. “You know, I do understand that what happened yesterday, with the dice...I’m sure it was an accident.”
“You are?” Gwen was surprised; she had hardly suspected Gwaine to be the ‘forgive and forget’ type.
“Oh, absolutely. But here’s the thing. Despite his impressive size, ol’ Percy doesn’t particularly enjoy hurting people. And he had to hurt a lot of people yesterday.”
As if on cue, Percival loomed up behind Gwaine, somehow managing to look sorrowful and completely terrifying at the same time. Gwen gulped nervously. She had already sustained her fair share of bruises, and she knew she didn’t stand a chance against Percival.
“But,” Gwaine continued. “He’s far too nice to hold it against you personally, so we’ve decided that as of now, you’re one of us.”
Gwen’s expression currently resembled that of the fish in the palace pond during feeding time. “I’m...what?”
“One of us,” clarified Lancelot, clapping Gwen heartily on the shoulder. “You gave as well as you got, Elyan, and we could use another man to watch our collective backs.”
Gwaine practically howled with laughter, leaning on Percival as he bent double.
“Oh, we really had you there,” he wheezed. “Should’ve seen the look on your face!”
Gwen folded her arms. “That’s not funny,” she said sternly, but her lips twitched as she fought back a smile. However, further banter was interrupted by Arthur’s arrival, and the soldiers quickly lined up. Instead of his armor, Arthur was wearing a simple red shirt, laces open at the neck and sleeves rolled up to show arms thick with muscle. Gwen fought the urge to blatantly ogle him, although a quick glance up and down the line showed one or two more recruits fighting the same impulse.
“You will assemble quickly and quietly each morning,” Arthur instructed, pacing up and down the line. “Anyone who disobeys will answer to me personally.”
Impressed silence reigned absolute in the camp.
“Now,” Arthur continued. “My job is to make you into soldiers. Being a man is easy - anyone can be swift or strong. A true warrior takes these qualities and applies them to battle by using their wits.”
Gwaine snorted, the silence of the other men making it almost obnoxiously loud. Arthur turned toward Gwaine, but to everyone’s surprise, did not become angry. Instead, he smiled, almost pleasantly.
“Thank you for volunteering, Gwaine.” Arthur drew a dagger from his belt, and taking aim, threw it at a nearby tree. It embedded itself near the crown, quivering slightly as the recruits stared. “Retrieve that dagger for me.”
Gwaine rolled his shoulders with an audible crack. “Sure thing, Princess.” As he approached the tree, Arthur held up his hand.
“One additional instruction - you cannot touch the tree with your hands.” A low murmur went up among the recruits. Surely this was an impossible task, but Gwaine did not seem deterred. Stepping back a few paces, he made a running start for the tree and attempted to climb his way up, only to lose momentum and hook his elbows over a branch. To add insult to injury, the branch then broke, and Gwaine fell to the ground with a thump.
“Failed!” Arthur shouted. “Next man!”
One by one, the soldiers attempted the task, slinking to the end of the line with Arthur’s shout of “Failed!” ringing in their ears. A particularly bright recruit attempted the task with gloves, arguing that Arthur had not said anything about them. However, he failed to climb the tree anyway, and Arthur banned gloves and other hand coverings. Gwen barely made it onto the tree before she fell, rubbing her backside with a wince as she retreated to the end of the line. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Arthur sighed heavily.
“We’ve got a long way to go.”
Days began to blur together, and Gwen could barely focus on training for the soreness that pervaded every muscle in her body. Bows and arrows, staves, sword and shield - Gwen had been beaten black and blue with just about every kind of weapon she had ever forged. Arthur kept them on a punishing routine, filling the day with training until the last rays of the sun illuminated the dagger in the tree, still glimmering tauntingly. Today’s training consisted of running across the hilly terrain in full armor, maille jingling in time to the pounding of feet against the earth. Having spent half of her life in the forge, Gwen thought she could’ve handled the punishing heat, but she stumbled and collapsed, ears ringing and breath echoing in her helmet.
Bringing up the rear, Arthur spared Gwen a pitying glance before relieving her of her pack. He continued after the rest of the recruits, both packs slung over his shoulder. Riding behind him, Merlin slung Gwen’s arm over his shoulder and pulled her to her feet.
“Come on, Gwen,” he said quietly. “Let’s get you back to camp.” Exhausted and defeated, Gwen let Merlin drag her away.
That night as Gwen was finishing her dinner, Arthur walked up to her, leading Gwen’s mare. He placed the reins in her hand, jaw firmly set.
“You’re not cut out for war,” he said simply. “Go home to your father and help the war effort by working the forge. Consider yourself lucky; you would’ve been killed in your first battle.”
Gwen stared numbly after Arthur as he walked away. She couldn’t stop now - any course of action other than remaining in the army would surely reveal her to be an imposter, and possibly Merlin’s involvement with the charm. Both crimes still carried the death penalty in Camelot, and there was absolutely no way Gwen would risk her friend’s life. As she stared up into the sky, a faint glimmer caught her eye. It was the dagger, still embedded at the top of the tree. A fierce determination took ahold of her, and Gwen strode off to grab an ax.
That morning, a thunderous crash awoke Arthur, and he hurried outside his tent to see what had caused the commotion. To his surprise, a felled tree lay in the middle of the camp - the very same tree he had stuck the dagger in.
Gwen fought the urge to laugh at Arthur’s gobsmacked expression, and casually slung the ax over her shoulder. She had worked all night to chop the tree down, and was exhausted and coated with sweat. However, it couldn’t dull the sense of triumph she felt as she pulled the dagger out of the wood and dropped it into Arthur’s hand, sauntering off to where an impressed Gwaine, Percival, and Lancelot were waiting. A low murmur followed her as she went, the recruits now standing in awe of her.
“I guess you’ll have to keep him now,” Merlin gloated. Arthur shot him a glare, but stared after Gwen with consideration as he tucked the dagger into his belt. Clearly this raw recruit was tougher than he had anticipated.
As the weeks turned into a month, Gwen found herself growing ever stronger and stronger. Runs that had once exhausted her were easily conquered, and she could even hold her own against Percival. All around her, the men were growing more disciplined and skilled under Arthur’s training, coalescing into an army that rivalled the very knights of Camelot. Each of the men honed and developed their skills - Gwaine’s cunning, Percival’s strength, and Lancelot’s bravery all lent them the upper hand in combat. Even Agravaine had run out of details to nitpick in his reports. There was no doubting it: Arthur’s army of foot soldiers was ready for battle.
Chapter 6: The Calm Before the Storm
Morgause sat across from Cenred in his tent, hunched over a small crystal ball. She waved her hand across it, chanting in the language of magic.
“What do you see?” Cenred asked, eyes glimmering.
“King Uther has an army stationed in the hills.” Morgause’s gaze never left the crystal ball. “He intends to ambush us as we make our way to Camelot.”
Cenred stroked his beard thoughtfully. “How many men?”
“Two battalions. If we were caught unawares, the battle could fall in his favor. Even so, it would not be a quick victory for us. We should skirt the hills instead,” Morgause suggested.
“No, the quickest way to the castle is over those hills,” countered Cenred. “Besides, encountering Uther here, instead of in his little fortress, is an unexpected bonus. Without their king, Camelot will be even easier to conquer.”
Morgause grinned, the light from the crystal ball casting sinister shadows across her face. “And then Camelot will be yours.”
Cenred returned the wicked grin. “Do not think your loyalty will go unrewarded, my dear Morgause. As a token of my gratitude, you will be given free reign a over substantial amount of land. Do with it as you please.”
Morgause bowed her head. “If I may, Sire, a mighty king such as yourself will need a queen.”
“And you suggest yourself?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Sire.” Morgause dismissed the question with a wave of her hand. “However, Uther has a ward - a young woman by the name of Morgana. Marry her, and Camelot will be forced to accept you as its ruler in the name of the law.”
“And how do you benefit?”
Morgause shrugged. “She is my half-sister. It never hurts to have another connection to throne, after all.”
Cenred considered the statement, before nodding. “If nothing else, I have heard she is very beautiful. A good plan, Morgause.” He stood up from his chair, black cloak swirling around his legs. “Rest up, my sorceress. Tomorrow, we turn the tide against Camelot.”
Morgause gave a short bow in return, and slipped out of the tent, leaving Cenred to his machinations.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Merlin groaned, hiding his face in his hands. The motion caused the various pots piled around him to rattle, and he lunged forward to keep one from falling into the river.
“What? You’re on cleaning duty, it’s the perfect excuse for you to keep watch.” Gwen methodically removed her socks and shoes, before pulling her tunic over her head. Merlin let out a small squeak, and turned away, face bright red.
“But what if you get caught?” He protested, still pointedly facing away from Gwen. “Lots of the men swim in the river, you know.”
“You said as long as I keep the necklace on, I’ll look and sound like a man,” argued Gwen. “I’ll be fine, Merlin, really.” She jumped into the river with a splash, and submerged herself up to her neck. “You can turn around now.”
“Your face, yes. But I don’t know about your…” Merlin gestured vaguely to his chest, before quickly bringing his hands back down. “Your, uh…”
Gwen laughed at her friend’s awkwardness, before ducking her head under the water and running her fingers through her hair. However, when she emerged, she saw three figures rapidly approaching, articles of clothing flying through the air as they made a beeline for the river.
With a whoop, Gwaine launched himself into the air before landing in the river with a mighty splash, naked as the day he was born. Meanwhile, Lancelot swan-dived in behind him, and Percival contented himself with rolling up his breeches and swinging his feet in the water, staring up at the clouds scudding through the sky.
“Oh, hello Elyan!” Lancelot exclaimed, shaking his hair like a dog. “We didn’t see you here.”
“Yes, I was just, um, keeping Merlin company,” Gwen replied, and shot a glare at the unlucky manservant.
“Good thing we came, then,” Gwaine remarked. “Dull as ditchwater, he is.” Merlin chose that moment to direct a length of seaweed to drift against Gwaine’s ankle, causing him to let out an unmanly shriek and scramble onto a nearby rock. Gwen made a point not to look at his nakedness, staring resolutely at the sky.
“Well, I was just washing, and I’m done, so I’m going to go now.” She made her way to the riverbank, but Lancelot grabbed her arm.
“I’m sorry we got you involved in all of that mess on the first day,” he said frankly. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad we’re friends now.”
“I’m, uh, glad we’re friends too.” Gwen tried to inch herself away from Lancelot, keeping her chest as submerged as she could. Meanwhile, Gwaine had busied himself with fashioning a flag out of a leaf and a twig, and now brandished it proudly from atop his rock.
“I hereby proclaim myself King Gwaine of the Rocklands!” he shouted, as Gwen hid her face in her hands.
“What do you think?” Lancelot asked, bemused. “Should we stage a coup?”
Percival looked skyward in mild exasperation. “You’re on your own.”
“What about you, Elyan? I think we can take him.”
“Not really feeling up for it, sorry. Why don’t we just...swim?”
Lancelot eyed Gwen skeptically, but shrugged in acceptance. Gwen cast a side glance at Merlin, and mouthed “help me” pleadingly. Merlin rolled his eyes good-naturedly, before letting them flash gold as he used his magic.
“What the hell was that?” Gwaine pointed in the water by Lancelot, who immediately moved away. “It looked like an eel!”
Percival leaned over to look closer. “I bet if we caught it, we could make stew.”
“Stew does sound good,” Lancelot admitted. “I’ll grab a line.”
“I’ll get the nets!”
In the ensuing scramble, Gwen made her way to the edge of the river, throwing on her tunic before the other men could glance in her direction.
“That was close,” she breathed.
Merlin tossed a cloak in her general direction, eyes still covered. “Welcome to my world.”
Arthur paced inside his tent, while Agravaine sat in front of a map of the area. Merlin sat in the corner, silently polishing Arthur’s armor.
“You think your men are ready for battle?” Agravaine scoffed. “They won’t last a minute!”
“They completed their training,” protested Arthur. “You said so in your last report.”
“They are no more fit to be soldiers than you are fit to be acting Captain.” Agravaine brandished his scroll accusingly at his nephew. “Don’t think that your status as Prince makes you automatically competent in the ways of war.” Merlin looked up sharply, eyes narrowed at the insult.
Arthur smacked the scroll out of his face and glared at Agravaine. “This isn’t over,” he snarled, before storming out of the tent in a huff. On his way, he passed Gwen, who looked after him with wide eyes.
“I think you’re an excellent leader,” she offered, reaching out a hand for Arthur’s shoulder. He paused, however slightly, but brushed away the hand and walked off. Merlin watched him leave, then looked back at Gwen. However, Gwen’s eyes were still trained on Arthur’s retreating figure, and she sighed heavily. It didn’t take long for Merlin to put two and two together.
“You fancy him!” He said slyly, elbowing Gwen in the ribs.
Gwen instantly elbowed him back. “What? No!”
“It’s alright; all the girls do. And no small amount of boys,” he noted.
“Is it that obvious?”
Merlin shrugged. “Apparently not to him.”
“There’s not much I could do anyway,” Gwen said morosely. “He thinks I’m a man, and even if he didn’t, I’m just a servant.”
“None of that’s going to matter if we don’t win,” Merlin pointed out. “I overheard Arthur and Agravaine talking; Agravaine wants to keep us in reserve because he thinks we’re useless. Without us, Camelot won’t have enough men to fight off the Escetians.”
“What do you suggest we do?” Gwen’s eyes widened.
“We forge a letter from King Uther, requesting Arthur as backup. That way, we can tip the balance in our favor, and Arthur has a chance to prove himself as a commander.” Merlin’s face was set with determination.
“Is this the sort of decision you have to make?” Gwen turned solemn. “With the fate of Camelot constantly in your hands?”
Merlin nodded silently. “It’s difficult, sometimes,” he admitted. “But people like you and Arthur, they make it easier.”
Gwen smiled, and placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “You’re not alone this time,” she replied. “We’ll get through it.”
Merlin returned the smile, his hand moving up to cover Gwen’s. “Now let’s write that letter.”
Agravaine hummed to himself as he readjusted his his breeches and redid his belt, turning away from the tree he had just relieved himself on. As he did, he found himself face-to-face with a wizened old man, dressed in a black cloak.
“Urgent letter from the front!” Merlin brandished the letter in Agravaine’s face, trying not to laugh as his superior spluttered in shock. “What’s the matter? Never gotten a letter before, eh?”
“Give me that!” Agravaine snatched the letter out of Merlin’s hand and unrolled it. His eyes widened as he took in the news, but when he looked up, Merlin had seemingly vanished. In reality, he was just behind the tree, rolling up the cloak and struggling mightily not to laugh. He watched as Agravaine dashed towards Arthur’s tent, then moved off to give Gwen news of their success. Within the hour, Arthur’s army was on the move.
Chapter 7: Long Live the King
“Gods above, I won’t need to wear shoes any more at this rate,” Gwaine groaned. “My soles have turned into leather.”
“They already smell like a tanner’s house anyway,” remarked Lancelot, and earned himself a playful shove on the shoulder. The men were marching to the front, and laden with their packs and weapons, it was not an easy march. Gwen and Percival rolled their eyes at Gwaine’s antics, and kept walking. Gwen nearly had to trot to keep up with Percival’s strides.
“Well, Elena loves me anyway.” Gwaine puffed out his chest proudly.
“Only the love of my life,” replied Gwaine indignantly. “She’s waiting for me to return, and when I do, we’ll move out to the country.”
Gwen raised her eyebrows. “I never took you for the sentimental type, Gwaine.”
“He’s like this with all of them.” Percival shook his head. “Give it a month, and he’ll be chasing another.”
“At least I don’t write poetry.”
“It’s from the heart,” Lancelot defended. “That’s what’s important.”
“I think it’s quite nice,” added Gwen, taking Lancelot’s side. “I would - I mean, any lady would be happy to receive poetry.”
“See?” Lancelot turned to his companions. “It’s not as bad as you make it sound.”
“What about you, Elyan? Have you got a girl back home?” Gwaine said, abruptly changing the direction of teasing.
“I - erm, I -” Gwen floundered helplessly. “Uh, no. No, I don’t.”
Percival gave a half-shrug. “As long as you have somebody you love.”
“My father,” replied Gwen instantly. “I’d do anything for him.”
“Then you have something to fight for.”
Gwen smiled up at Percival, who returned the grin. Gwaine clapped them both around the shoulder, and the trio walked in step, Lancelot tagging along at the side.
“As long as we stick together, we’ll always have something to fight for,” Gwaine proclaimed. “Provided we don’t all die of starvation first.”
The group was so busy sharing their laughter that they almost ran into the men in front of them, who had stopped dead. Gwen, Lancelot, Percival, and Gwaine worked their way to the front of the throng, just at the edge of the hills. Instead of the normal murmur of chatter, the group had fallen silent, the only sound the wind whistling through the trees. Gwen pressed a hand to her mouth, and Lancelot audibly gasped.
Along the edge of the forest lay scores of fallen men, almost all of them bearing the crimson cloaks of Camelot. Their blood muddied the ground and stained it rust-brown, soaking the forest in the stench of death.
Arthur’s horse whinnied, and the recruits parted around him to let him through. Reaching the front, he took in the ghastly tableau that lay in front of him.
“Search for survivors,” Arthur ordered hollowly. “Make sure scouts are sent into the forest in case the Escetians have set up an ambush.” The men reluctantly moved to obey his orders, one or two of the fresh-faced recruits running into the bushes to vomit. Gwen nearly followed them as her stomach churned, but bravely set her shoulders and began searching for survivors. Her foot caught on a cloak, and she looked down to free it. She recognized the knight - it was Sir Brynden, a member of Camelot’s forces since Gwen was young. He’d snuck her sweets whenever he stopped by the forge, shushing her delighted shouts with a wink. And now he was dead, cut down by a murderer who would only continue his grisly path.
Gwen sank to her knees, fighting the urge to cry as she covered Sir Brynden in his cloak. From the looks of things, not a single man had survived. Although they had fought mightily, Camelot’s best knights had not been enough to stop the rampage of Cenred’s army.
A general cry went up, and Gwen ran over to see what had happened. Lancelot was approaching Arthur, something cradled in his hands. A flash of gold caught the light, and Gwen let out a small whimper. It was Uther’s sword and crown, both bloodied from the battle. Lancelot knelt and presented them to Arthur, who took them carefully in both hands.
“I’m so sorry, Sire,” Lancelot said quietly. “There were no survivors.”
Arthur’s throat worked as he stared down at the crown in his hands, his father’s legacy weighing far heavier than any amount of gold. Even Agravaine seemed dumbstruck as he stood behind Arthur. The prince turned around and walked towards the apex of the hill, then drew Uther’s sword. He stabbed it into the dirt, then knelt in front of it, his head bowed in grief.
For a long moment, nobody dared approach him. Finally, Gwen could bear it no more, and stood behind him at a respectful distance.
“I’m so sorry,” she murmured. Arthur glanced over his shoulder, then nodded in acknowledgment. He stood up, and walked back towards the gathered crowd. As he passed, he put his hand on her shoulder, and Gwen could feel the sorrow coursing through him.
“We need to move back to Camelot quickly,” he proclaimed. “The Escetians have a head start, and our forces are depleted. We are Camelot’s last hope.”
“Long live the king!” The shout came from the back, and all eyes turned to see who had raised their voice. Gwaine held his fist in the air. “Long live the king!”
Percival and Lancelot joined him, raising their fists. “Long live the king! Long live the king!” The other soldiers took up the shout, until the entire group was crying out. Arthur lifted the crown towards them in acknowledgment, then placed it on his head and mounted his horse.
“All troops, move out!”
Chapter 8: In the Valley of Kings
The soldiers marched on in silence, the heavy stillness of the forest weighing upon their shoulders. As they approached Camelot’s borders, Arthur had ordered the men to be quiet, in order to hide themselves from Cenred. Now, they were entering the Valley of Kings, filing through the ravine in tense silence.
Owning one of the few remaining horses, Gwen had been charged with protecting the pikes, which would be integral in Camelot’s defence. The heads snapped off easily, so they needed to be carried in a cart rather than by the men.
Gwaine idly kicked a pebble, sending it skittering down the valley. Gwen elbowed him in the side, eyes wide with concern.
“What did you do that for?” She half-whispered. “We need to be quiet!” Gwaine merely shushed her back in response, causing Gwen to roll her eyes. She scuffed at a rock of her own and sent it flying into the forest. A flock of birds startled into flight, flapping into the skies with a series of cacophonous cries. The recruits stopped in their tracks, staring at the flock with looks of dismay.
“What did you do?” Arthur cried, pulling his horse around to face Gwen. “You just gave away our position! Now we’re-”
Arthur’s tirade morphed into a shout of pain as an arrow whistled through the air and embedded itself in his armor, knocking him from his horse. With a grunt, he ripped the arrow from his arm and scrambled to his feet.
“We’re under attack!” He cried. “Save the pikes!” Flaming arrows whipped through the air, setting trees and caravans alike ablaze. The soldiers formed a human chain as they passed the weapons down the valley in an attempt to save as many as they could from the fire. Meanwhile, the rest of the recruits took cover behind a rocky outcrop, dodging arrows as they attempted to return fire. As suddenly as the rain of arrows started, they stopped, leaving the forest eerily still once more.
“Hold your fire,” Arthur called, raising his hand. “Save your arrows. If we die, we die with honor.”
A faint rumbling began underfoot, shaking pebbles and dust free from the rocky valley. With a thunderous roar, Cenred’s army crested over the hill, flowing down the steep path like a flood of black ink.
“Aim for Cenred!” Arthur cried, but all the arrows went wide. Gwen’s eyes widened in horror as she watched the soldiers pouring towards their position, but suddenly, an idea struck her. She snatched up a pike from the salvaged pile and scrambled up the rocks, pinning the pike between her chest and chin as she used both hands to navigate the rocky slope.
“Elyan, come back!” Arthur moved to vault over his cover, but a volley of arrows forced him to duck back behind it. Ignoring Gwen in favor of the concentrated area of soldiers, Cenred’s army continued its unstoppable charge.
With a grunt, Gwen pulled herself over the last ledge, where a few boulders lay at the top of the valley. Wedging her pike between the ground and a boulder, she bore down on the makeshift lever with all of her weight, face contorted as she cried out with exertion.
“We have to help him!” Gwaine combat-rolled from one rock to another, Lancelot and Percival following suit. However, they found themselves face-to-face with a few advance scouts blocking the path toward Gwen.
Letting out another cry, Gwen dug deep into the bedrock and heaved one last time. The pike shaft splintered in her hands, but the boulder began to slowly shift towards the edge. Her mission accomplished, Gwen scrambled down the rock face, trying to join her comrades. Arthur and his men had managed to mount a small defense and were blocking the valley as best they could, but they were faltering under the sheer number of Escetian soldiers. If they pushed past Arthur, there was no way Gwen’s plan would work.
Gwen drew her sword, and baring her teeth, leapt in front of Cenred’s horse. It reared in surprise, nearly tossing its rider from its back. Cenred roared in frustration, and unsheathed his own sword. He swung it at Gwen, catching her along her right side. Gwen let out a cry of pain and stumbled, but her plan had worked. With a final rumble, the boulder she had dislodged broke free of the surrounding rock and fell over the edge of the valley. The boulder rolled downwards, crushing Escetians beneath it like bugs.
“Go, go!” Arthur shouted, gesturing frantically for the men to scatter. Cenred’s eyes widened at the chaos being wrought behind him, before the avalanche of dust and rocks swallowed him whole. Injured as she was, Gwen had barely managed to get out of the way, and clung to the rock face like a barnacle, shielding her eyes from the stinging grit. She had unleashed a maelstrom that had now turned against her.
Further down the valley, Arthur shoved the last recruit out of the way of the avalanche, before a large rock struck him on the temple. He slumped to the ground, unconscious.
“Arthur and Elyan are still out there!” Lancelot shouted from where he was crouched behind a rock. “They could be trapped!”
“ We’re trapped! If we go out there now, we’ll be killed!”
“Elyan!” cried Merlin desperately, eyes half-closed against the dust. “Elyan, where are you!”
“Here!” Gwen’s voice echoed off the rocks, and Merlin whirled around. “I’m here, Merlin!”
Merlin’s eyes flashed gold, and his vision changed. Now able to see through the dust, he waded over to Gwen, nimbly dodging the rolling boulders.
“This way,” he urged. “Come on, we have to get through!”
“Where’s Arthur?” Gwen supported herself on Merlin, a hand wrapped around her torso.
“I don’t know. Arthur!”
“Sire, where are you!” Gwen called, scanning for any signs of life.
“Over there!” Merlin pointed at a flash of crimson on the other side of the valley. “He’s unconscious!”
The pair ran towards Arthur, still lying prone on the floor. By some miracle, he had not been struck again, but Gwen knew his luck would not last much longer. Straining, she and Merlin slung Arthur’s arms over their shoulders, dragging him to safety. As they did, another shower of rocks clattered down the hill, sealing off the valley altogether. Merlin and Gwen set Arthur down on the ground, both panting hard from their exertion.
The prince groaned, hand lifting to his head as he regained consciousness. He propped himself up on his elbows, taking in the scene before him. Gwen and Merlin knelt at his side, but Arthur brushed away Merlin’s offer of support.
“You saved my life, Elyan,” Arthur said in wonder. “You saved us all. I owe you a debt I can never repay.” Gwen smiled at the prince, who returned the smile. However, it wasn’t one of his standard smirks - this was a smile filled with genuine warmth.
“Three cheers for Elyan!” Gwaine whooped. “Hip hip, huzzah!”
The other soldiers took up the cheer, and Gwen could practically feel her face light up. She moved to stand up, but pain tore through her side. She let out a gasp of pain and fell to her knees, Arthur instantly by her side. Moving her fingers from her ribs, Gwen noticed that her hand was sticky with blood. The cheers instantly quieted, but Gwen’s ears were still ringing. She collapsed onto the ground, curling in on herself with a small whimper. Arthur rolled her over, his hand warm and grounding on Gwen’s shoulder.
“Hold on, Elyan,” Arthur said, his face growing fuzzy. “We’ll get you help. Just - hold on.”
Gwen’s head lolled back, and she succumbed to the darkness that encroached on her vision. His face hard, Arthur slipped his arms under Gwen, holding her in a bridal carry.
“Get the medic,” he ordered. “We need to save Elyan.”
Gwen awoke inside her tent, covered in a warm blanket. She moved to prop herself up, but fell back onto her elbows with a wince. Pulling back her blanket, Gwen noticed the bandages neatly wrapped around her torso, and her breath caught in her throat. If she had been discovered -
“Where did you get this,” a voice said flatly, interrupting Gwen’s worry. She looked up in shock, seeing Agravaine standing at the entrance of Gwen’s tent. He held up Merlin’s charm, letting it dangle through his fingers.
“I - I bought it. From a vendor outside the city,” Gwen stammered. “Please, Sire, this isn’t what you think-”
“I think it looks like you used sorcery to infiltrate Camelot’s army,” interrupted Agravaine. “As a woman, nonetheless.”
Gwen’s eyes started to burn, but she kept her voice steady. “I did it to save my father. He’s sick, he wouldn’t have lasted a day!”
“Get up!” Agravaine ordered, and dragged Gwen to her feet. He shoved her outside the tent, where she collapsed to her knees. The soldiers who had gathered to check on their comrade gasped in surprise, a low murmur running through the crowd. Gwen wrapped the blanket tight around her shoulders, her head bowed in shame.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Arthur cried. “Who are you?”
“My name is Guinevere Smith,” Gwen replied defiantly. “I’m the Lady Morgana’s maidservant. I promise you, I meant Camelot no harm. I didn’t mean for it to go this far!”
A spark of recognition gleamed in Arthur’s eyes, and he stared down at her in surprise. “Gwen?”
“Silence!” Agravaine pulled a face at the young woman on the ground in front of him. “For the crimes of sorcery and attempting to enlist while female, your punishment is death.”
“No, you can’t do that!” Gwaine was practically foaming at the mouth, bodily held back by Percival and Lancelot. “She saved us all! She saved the bloody king !”
“I just wanted to save my father,” Gwen whispered as she stared at Arthur. “Please, sire. If you had a way to save yours, wouldn’t you?”
Arthur flinched back as if he had been burned, and drew his sword grimly.
“Sire, perhaps an exception can be made?” Lancelot pleaded, but Agravaine shook his head.
“You know the laws.”
Arthur advanced on Gwen, his sword in his hand. Gwen bowed her head in anticipation, hoping that she would not suffer. However, Arthur thrust his sword into the ground, only inches from Gwen’s head. She stared at her reflection in the metal, wide-eyed and miserable.
“Consider my debt repaid,” Arthur spat. “Move out!”
Agravaine spluttered indignantly. “Sire, but you can’t just-”
“I am the acting king of Camelot, Uncle ,” Arthur snarled. “Do you question my order?”
“Well, no,” backpedaled Agravaine. “Of course not.”
“Good. Then move. Out!”
The soldiers filed past Gwen, some staring, some hiding their faces in shame. Gwaine, Lancelot, and Percival hesitated, before throwing her a tinder kit and hurrying after Arthur.
Gwen watched the soldiers leave with a heavy heart. She had no choice but to go home now - home to her father, who would be conscripted and probably never return. Home to a life where she went unnoticed by the people who surrounded her, where she would never amount to anything beyond a serving girl. Sighing, Gwen pulled her blanket tighter around herself and looked to the sky, wondering which way was the fastest route back home.
All across the Valley of Kings, silence reigned absolute. Not even the birds dared to sing, in fear of the massacre that had just occurred. However, the valley was not as deserted as it appeared.
A faint tremor shook a rock, and then another. They built off each other until the entire valley thundered with the sound of their shaking.
With a fearsome cry, Morgause broke through the rocks that had trapped her, sending a plume of debris into the air. Breathing hard, she looked around as the golden glow faded from her eyes. Here and there, mangled limbs poked out from underneath boulders, but her magic told her that she was not the only survivor.
“ Stanas ahreosaþ! ” She shouted, and struck the ground with open palms. The rocks that had trapped the Escetians cracked apart like eggs, allowing the survivors to break free. Cenred clawed his way out from underneath a shattered boulder, bruised and with a cut on his forehead, but otherwise unharmed. He growled deep in his throat, then tilted his head towards the sky and let out a wordless cry of rage.
Gwen flinched in surprise as the cry echoed through the hills, startling birds into flight. Carefully, she crept towards the valley, curious to see what had occurred. As she watched, more and more Escetians began to emerge from the rocks, gathering in a mass before heading towards Camelot. Gwen stifled a gasp at the sight, before running back to her mare and urging her into a gallop. Home would have to wait.
Chapter 9: Coming Home
Arthur and his men rode through the streets of Camelot as the people cheered, throwing flowers over their new king. However, the ride felt joyless to the soldiers - victory had come at a price that was far too high. Even Gwaine could barely manage a smile, despondent over the loss of his friend. However, the parade went on, filled with dancers, jesters, and acrobats.
Gwen pulled on her horse’s reins, stopping it before it could enter the crowd. Quickly tying it to a post, she shoved her way through the crowd until she was running parallel to Arthur’s mount .
“Sire!” she cried, and reached out a hand to the king’s horse. Arthur looked down in shock.
“Sire, the Escetians survived the attack, they’re in the city!”
Arthur shook his head. “Guinevere, you don’t belong here,” he said firmly. “Go home.”
“I saw them in the valley. Please, you have to believe me!” Gwen begged.
“Why should I?”
“You said you trusted Elyan,” Gwen protested. “Why am I different?”
Arthur looked down at Gwen for a moment, then dug his heels into his horse’s side. It sprang forward, leaving Gwen behind. As she stood watching him leave, Gwaine, Lancelot, and Percival passed by.
“I know they’re here,” she warned. “Keep your eyes open.”
“Wait!” Lancelot shouted back. “Where are you going?”
Gwen paused at the edge of the crowd. “To find someone who will believe me.” She pushed back into the crowd and disappeared.
Arthur made his way to the steps of the citadel, where Morgana was waiting for him. The two embraced, and Morgana pulled back, tears in her eyes. Despite his own doubts, Arthur smiled at her, and she returned it as best she could. Arthur knelt before her, holding out Cenred’s sword in both hands.
“On behalf of the people of Camelot, I present to you the sword of Cenred, King of the Escetians,” he proclaimed. “May his reign of terror live in infamy forever.”
“Oh, my reign isn’t over just yet.”
A series of gasps escaped the crowd as one of the dancers removed his mask, revealing it to be none other than Cenred himself. Another dancer’s eyes glowed gold, and the sword ripped itself from Arthur’s hands and flew into Cenred’s. Arthur moved to draw his own sword, but Cenred knocked him over and grabbed Morgana by the arm. She clawed at his face in an attempt to free herself, but Cenred was too strong, and he dragged her into the citadel. Morgause quickly followed, clearing any resistance with blasts of magic. The remaining knights converged on the intruders, but Cenred slammed the second door shut, barring anyone from entering the castle .
“Now you’re mine,” he breathed, as he pulled Morgana close.
Gwen watched in horror as Arthur’s soldiers began to form a makeshift battering ram, Merlin secretly helping to increase its strength when nobody was watching.
“They’ll never make it in time,” she murmured to herself. “Unless…”
She scanned the hallway, taking in the discarded baskets and cloaks of fleeing servants. Bringing her fingers to her mouth, she gave a sharp whistle which attracted the soldiers’ attention.
“I’ve got an idea!” She called. “Follow me!”
Gwaine, Percival, and Lancelot immediately rushed over and crowded around Gwen.
“What’s the plan?” asked Lancelot breathlessly. Gwen tossed him a cloak with a smile.
“Grab some dirt,” she replied. “Cover yourself in a cloak, and grab a basket. Nobody looks twice at a servant - Cenred will be no exception.”
The three soldiers obeyed Gwen’s instructions, and were barely recognizable in a matter of minutes. Suddenly, Gwen felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned around with surprise. It was Arthur, his face grim.
“Pass me a cloak.”
“You’ll never get away with this,” Morgana snarled. Despite her bravado, she found herself backed against the edge of her balcony, Cenred and Morgause closing in on her. “Arthur is coming, and he will kill you.”
Cenred shook his head patronizingly. “His armies have fallen, and his own castle is now working against him. So tell me, what’s to stop me from marrying you now?”
“Remember, heads down, be polite, and don’t talk back!” Gwen hissed, adjusting the hood over Arthur’s head. He watched her hands move from the hood back to her sides, then nodded. Hefting her basket, Gwen led the men down a back passageway, to where Cenred was keeping Morgana. True to her word, not a single Escetian paid them any heed. In fact, when Gwen wordlessly held out a fruit basket to the guards at Morgana’s door, they willingly allowed her to enter after each picking out a pear.
As Gwen, Arthur, and the soldiers entered the chamber, Arthur’s cloak slipped, revealing the telltale red of Camelot. The guards looked at each other, then drew their swords. However, Gwaine, Percival, and Lancelot were too quick, instantly drawing their own weapons and engaging them. Gwen drew her own sword and took down a guard with a well-timed kick, then grabbed him in a choke hold.
“Go, sire!” she urged. Arthur dashed up the steps to where Morgana was being held captive.
Meanwhile, Cenred was quickly growing tired of Morgana’s resistance. He backhanded her across the face, sending her falling to the ground.
“I attempted to be civil,” he growled, “but now my patience has reached its end. Morgause, begin the ceremony!”
Morgause lifted her arms and began Escetir’s marriage ritual, only to be interrupted as Arthur tackled her to the ground. Her head hit the stone with a nasty crack, and the light behind her eyes died. Unperturbed, Arthur rose to his feet, barely blocking Cenred’s blow.
“Get Morgana to safety!” he cried, struggling with Cenred’s blade against his own. Percival deftly rolled across the room before scooping Morgana in his arms.
“Sorry, my Lady,” he apologized, before drawing a dagger and stabbing it into the banner that hung out of the balcony. He hopped over the ledge with the dagger still in the cloth, the added friction slowing his descent. They hit the ground hard, but Morgana remained unharmed. Gwaine and Lancelot quickly followed, forming a protective circle around Morgana.
Cenred let out an angry cry and headbutted Arthur, sending him tumbling to the ground, where he sprawled like a rag doll. Gwen hopped onto the balcony to follow the other men, but hesitated when she saw Arthur lying unconscious. Cenred prowled towards her, sword in hand. Thinking quickly, Gwen took her own sword and cut the banner off its mount, sending it fluttering to the ground.
Cenred stared in dismay as he watched his only way down disappear before his eyes, and ran to the edge of the balcony. Morgana had already been hustled out of sight, and was completely invisible in the large throng of people. He let out a shout of rage that echoed across the square.
Meanwhile, Gwen ran towards Arthur and began to help him up. He groaned and raised a hand to his head, but he seemed all right. Gwen was about to slip away when Cenred turned on them and drew his sword. Almost automatically, Arthur picked up his own and positioned himself in front of Gwen, ready to fight. Cenred lunged for him, and grabbed him by the collar. Although Arthur was by no means short or weak, the other king easily lifted him into the air by his throat.
“You took away my victory,” he snarled, tracing Arthur’s face with the point of his sword. Arthur could only wheeze helplessly as his breath was cut off, struggling desperately to free himself.
The shout distracted Cenred, and he turned his head to face Gwen.
“I was the one who took it away,” she announced, and slipped Merlin’s charm over her head. Cenred’s eyes widened as he saw Gwen’s disguise appear.
“The soldier in the valley.” Cenred completely forgot about Arthur, and let him drop to the floor. He advanced on Gwen, who dashed into the nearest room and threw the latch. However, Cenred hacked the solid wood apart in a matter of seconds, and Gwen sprinted down the hallway, nearly colliding with Merlin. The manservant kept pace with her as they ran down the citadel’s halls.
“What’s the plan?” He panted.
“You don’t have a plan?!” exclaimed Merlin.
“I’ll think of something!”
As soon as the words were out of Gwen’s mouth, she noticed the abandoned trebuchets on the ramparts. Merlin followed her gaze, then nodded.
“On it!” He peeled away from Gwen, who circled back to make sure Cenred was following her. Sure enough, the king was charging after her, blind with rage. Gwen led him up towards the very top of the castle, barely dodging his blows and the columns he knocked over. She scrambled up into the rafters, shrieking when Cenred chopped down its support. Clinging to the rafter, she hauled herself up onto the very roof of Camelot, struggling to keep her balance as she wielded her sword. Gwen panted as she scanned the roof for Cenred, waiting for Merlin’s signal.
Suddenly, Cenred burst up through the roof behind her, scattering tiles across the ledge. Gwen back down the ridge, her sword pointed steadily in front of her. With a lunge, Cenred knocked Gwen’s sword from her grasp, sending it clattering down the shingles.
“Now you’re defenseless,” he sneered, and began closing the gap between them. However, Gwen crouched low to the ground and ripped off a section of her dress, stretching it taut between her fists. Under Arthur’s tutelage, she had learned how to use a cloak as a parrying device - her makeshift strip would have to do.
Cenred swung at Gwen, his sword extended forwards. Moving to the side, Gwen brought her fists together, trapping the blade in a loop of cloth. She pulled her arms apart, and the sudden tautness in the cloth caused Cenred’s sword to go flying into the air. Gwen reached out and caught the sword by the handle, sliding into an aggressive stance.
“Now who’s defenseless?” she taunted, hoping to goad Cenred into attacking her. It worked - with a roar, the king charged towards her, ducking through her increasingly desperate slashes. However, Gwen’s retreat was purely tactical, and she slowly brought Cenred closer and closer into the range of the trebuchets.
Meanwhile, Merlin scanned the rooftops anxiously, waiting for Gwen to lure Cenred into the perfect spot.
“Come on, come on,” he muttered under his breath as he held a lit torch inches above the flammable surface. “Just a little more, Gwen!”
Meanwhile, Cenred swiped at Gwen, who ducked low to the shingles and shoved her foot forwards. Unbalanced by Gwen’s kick, the Escetian fell heavily, allowing Gwen to stab his sword through his cloak and pin him into place.
“Now, Merlin!” she cried, and leapt from the roof. She hit the nearby rampart with an “oof” and inched her way down a banner, clinging to the fabric for dear life. Merlin brought the torch down and pulled the trebuchet lever, sending its projectile sailing into the air. Cenred turned to see what signal Gwen had given, only to find himself face-to-face with a giant fireball.
The resulting crash shook half the remaining shingles off the roof and sent a gout of flames into the air, but the citizens of Camelot cheered with relief. Gwen lost her grip on the banner, having been startled by the blast, and fell with a shriek directly on top of Arthur. They toppled to the ground in a pile of sooty cloth and bruises, while Cenred’s circlet clattered to the stone floor next to them. Gwen, Arthur, Morgana, and the soldiers all breathed a collective sigh of relief at the sight of it - but their respite was only momentary.
“Where is she?!” a singed Agravaine screeched as he stormed down the castle steps. “She just caused immeasurable damage to the castle and made an attempt on my life! I’ll have her head for this!”
Instinctively, Arthur and Morgana moved in front of Gwen, with Percival, Gwaine, and Lancelot guarding her from the sides. Agravaine marched up to Arthur, arms folded.
“Your Majesty, I must insist that your sister’s maid be executed for treason.”
“She’s a hero!” Morgana retorted, her chin defiantly forward.
Agravaine scoffed. “She’s hardly worth anything.”
“Why, you pompous-!”
“Enough!” Arthur jumped in, attempting to save his uncle from Morgana’s wrath. Agravaine sullenly moved to the side, allowing Arthur to speak. Arthur faced Gwen, who bowed her head in deference.
“Guinevere,” Arthur began sternly. “You stole your father’s armor, impersonated a member of Camelot’s army, disobeyed direct orders, used magic for underhanded means...and saved the lives of everyone in Camelot, myself included. There is nothing I can do to express my gratitude, except..”
Arthur hesitated, then bowed at the waist before Gwen. Agravaine performed a double take, his mouth hanging open in astonishment, before bowing so low his nose nearly touched the ground. Morgana curtseyed with a smile, and the nearby soldiers bowed as well. Turning around in disbelief, Gwen stared as the assembled townspeople all bowed and curtseyed, Merlin arriving breathlessly to join them with a wide grin.
“You’re not upset about the magic?” Gwen murmured to Arthur as he righted himself.
“Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing,” Arthur replied, and winked at Merlin. The manservant winked back, his grin only spreading wider.
“Of course, you’ll all be given knighthoods and made members of my council,” continued Arthur. “Agravaine, have it done.”
Agravaine spluttered indignantly. “But there are no positions open!”
“Well, then yours is the first I’m clearing. What do you say, Gwen?”
Agravaine continued to splutter, before throwing his hands up into the air and stalking off in a huff.
“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” Gwen smiled. “I’ve been away from home far too long.”
Morgana nodded understandingly, and stooped to the ground to pick up Cenred’s circlet. “Then take this,” she offered. “If nothing else, you can melt it down and forge it into something beautiful.” Gwen accepted the circlet with a curtsey, holding it in her hands with awe. Morgana was right - it was pure gold, worth more money than she could ever hope to earn. Pressing a hand to her mouth, Gwen fought back tears as she pulled Morgana into a hug. Although she was initially surprised, Morgana soon relaxed, and hugged her maidservant back with a smile.
Letting Morgana go, Gwen was almost instantly mobbed by her friends, Percival enveloping them all in a large bear hug.
“We couldn’t be prouder to have your back,” Lancelot congratulated, and Gwaine looked suspiciously close to tears. Gwen made her way towards Arthur, but hesitated when it became obvious he wasn’t interested in the hug. Arthur opened his mouth, closed it again, then rubbed the back of his neck.
“Um...you’re good at fighting,” he said awkwardly, in contrast to his former eloquence.
Gwen’s smile faltered, but she nodded in acceptance of the compliment and turned away. As she made her way down the steps, Gwaine hid his face in his hands, and Morgana stared at Arthur in annoyance.
“What?” he asked peevishly.
Morgana poked her brother in the side. “That was the best you could manage?”
Arthur blinked at Morgana. “Was that...not good?”
“If I may, Sire,” Lancelot interjected. “It is a very rare flower indeed that blooms in the fire.”
Attacked from all sides, all Arthur could do was stare helplessly.
“He means that girls like her don’t show up every week,” translated Gwaine. “If I were you, I’d go pay her a visit.”
“Fine,” Arthur groaned. “If it’s that obvious.”
“Oh, it is.” Merlin practically radiated smugness. “Believe me, it is.”
Chapter 10: The Flower That Blooms in Fire
Tom sat on his bed, Gwen’s necklace pooled in the palm of his hand as it glimmered the morning light. The door creaked as it opened, causing him to jerk his head up.
“Father?” Gwen entered the room cautiously. “I have something for you.” She sat next to him on the bed, placing the circlet between them.
“It’s Cenred’s circlet,” she explained. “King Arthur gave it to me, as a token of his appreciation on behalf of Camelot.”
Tom didn’t even look at the circlet as he brushed it off the bad and pulled Gwen close.
“Having you as my daughter is the only gift I could ever want,” he breathed, eyes shut against impending tears. Father and daughter embraced for a long minute, basking in each others’ presence.
Suddenly, a knock on the door interrupted them, and Gwen and Tom went to go see who it was. To their surprise, it was Arthur, divested of all kingly attire.
“Um, hello,” he offered. “I was just curious, Gwen, what are you - what are you planning on making with the circlet?” His eyes flicked to Tom, who was standing in the doorway. “Hello, Thomas. I mean, if you’re not planning on making anything, that’s fine too, I was just-”
“Excuse me, Sire, but I must attend to the forge,” Tom said, his eyes crinkling with happiness as he left the young couple alone. Arthur shifted from foot to foot as he stood before Gwen, who giggled in amusement.
“I’m sorry, you’d think I would be better at this.” Arthur rubbed the back of his neck, before offering a lopsided grin to Gwen. “I was wondering, would you like to come by the citadel sometime? Not for work, I mean, I know you work there, but as-”
Gwen cut off Arthur’s mangled invitation by grabbing the hem of his tunic and pulling him close, standing on her tiptoes so she could kiss him. Arthur quickly settled into it despite his surprise, sliding his arm around Gwen’s waist to draw her closer. Breaking the kiss, Gwen stared at Arthur with giddy excitement.
“Yes,” she said warmly. “Yes, I would love to!”
“Then it’s settled,” Arthur replied, and pulled her in again.
“What the hell?!”
Gwen and Arthur jumped apart guiltily to stare at the newcomer, who was glaring at them with crossed arms.
“Who are you, and why are you snogging my sister?” He demanded.
Arthur spluttered momentarily, while Gwen gasped in delight.
“Elyan!” She squealed, and launched herself at her brother. “I can’t believe it! We thought you were never coming back!”
Elyan smiled as Gwen wrapped her arms around his neck. “I heard Camelot was under attack, so I thought I should come home and make sure you and Father were alright,” he explained. “Little did I know my baby sister was the one terrorizing the citadel and not Cenred!”
“Stop it,” laughed Gwen, and extracted herself from Elyan’s hug. Arthur cleared his throat behind her, and she froze in surprise.
“Oh yes, that’s...King Arthur,” she added, her enthusiasm faltering.
“Your Majesty,” Elyan said coolly.
Arthur nodded in acknowledgment. “Elyan.”
Gwen could feel the tension brewing, and quickly stepped between them. “Why don’t we go tell Father!” She suggested, trying to force some excitement into her voice. “He’ll be so glad to know you’re well.”
Elyan smiled. “Yes, I’d like that.” He entered the house, Arthur close behind him. Gwen breathed deeply and tilted her head upwards, letting the sun’s rays caress her face. The bustle of the citadel market drifted by her, sounds and smells mingling in comforting familiarity. With a smile, Gwen entered her house, casting one last look backwards. She’d hoped to prove Lady Catrina wrong one day, but now her goal seemed so small and petty, and Gwen wondered why she had ever been worried in the first place. Now, she had everything she could ever hope for - and more.