hope: Art of a woman writing from tour poster (merlin - gwaine being a bit rakish)
puddingsmith ([personal profile] hope) wrote2011-06-06 09:41 pm

Along a Wandering Wind (4/6)

See the Masterpost for header information or read the whole thing on the AO3.


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Part Four


“So you’ve not moved to the garrison for good, then,” Gwaine observes, entering the room to find Gareth sitting cross-legged and unexpected on his rarely-used cot.

Gareth’s mouth twists. “Erin says that’s where the real men sleep.”

Gwaine raises an eyebrow. “Really,” he says drily. “I suppose real men enjoy rations for meals, and sleeping twenty to a room.”

“I—” Gareth says, jaw working. “Yes, I suppose.”

Gwaine smirks. “Suit yourself. As long as you’re always about when I need you.”

Gareth rolls his eyes, and Gwaine feels grateful anew that they’ve come to a more comfortable accord since the whole pining-for-Lancelot fiasco. Gareth treats him with more camaraderie than resentment, and subsequently they’ve managed to establish an easy rapport where Gareth actually seems to be learning something. And teaching Gwaine a little more about each bit of his suddenly-massive amount of armour, as well.  

Gwaine smirks and goes to peer out the window at the weather; but Gareth tenses as he passes, drawing his attention back down. And then Gwaine feels doused in cold water, because there are familiar squares of folded parchment on the cot behind Gareth’s back, ineffectually hidden. Gwaine’s snatched them up before he’s even thought about doing so, all heat in his body retracting to his pounding heart, even the sensation of the letters in his hands feeling distant.

“Why the hell do you have these?” he snaps at Gareth, needing to check to make sure all the letters are there but needing more to put Gareth back in his place, to gauge his response to reading them—to find out if he did read them, or if Gwaine interrupted him before he could begin.

“I—I just wanted—” Gareth stutters, the familiar out-of-his-depth flush staining his cheeks. He can’t meet Gwaine’s eyes, and Gwaine feels his stomach drop. “I was just curious. I wanted to know—”

“Well, I hope you’ve satisfied your curiosity,” Gwaine spits, knowing that handling this delicately is going to end with the best results, but feeling so keenly the violation of his privacy that he can’t stop from lashing out.

Gareth’s face screws up, and he meets Gwaine’s eyes. “But they just… didn’t make sense. Why?”

He seems so honestly befuddled, reaching out to Gwaine as if he’s trying to share a laugh about it, and Gwaine recoils, unable to interpret it as anything but derision. And derision is not the worst response one can get to being discovered as having a male lover, Gwaine knows very well from experience—but perhaps he’d lost his scepticism with Lancelot being so easily accepting, and forgotten what the rest of the known population was like. Especially amongst the nobles, who like the best of both worlds—wooing ladies publicly and with great acclaim, and keeping lovers of the same sex relegated to illicit, never-acknowledged meetings. Gwaine feels sick.

“I don’t expect you to understand,” he sneers at Gareth. “But if you value the use of your limbs, leave before you find out just how dirty I can fight.”

Gareth’s eyes widen in fear, and it’s his innocent obliviousness as to how hurtful his assumptions are that stings the sharpest. The door swings half-closed behind him, and Gwaine slams and bars it before sitting back on his bed, letters held gently in his shaking hands.

He shouldn’t be so affected—he shouldn’t, he knows it, but again, it’s Merlin, and anything that concerns him spears Gwaine straight to the heart. The letters are precious, and the thought of someone else reading them—of touching Merlin’s scarf in order to unwrap and discover them—makes him feel both enraged and close to tears. It’s ridiculous.

He shuffles the letters back into order, then carefully unfolds the one on the top. I’m not sure you’re aware of how difficult it is to read your letters he reads, eyes skimming automatically before he has to fold it closed again, and close his eyes, too. He swallows hard, and thinks of the letter he left in the seneschal’s hands two weeks ago.

What is he doing?

There’s a soft knock on the door. Gwaine hurriedly casts around for the discarded scarf, and upon finding it wraps the letters again, and quickly unloops the chain from his neck to unlock the writing set using the key strung upon it. He sets the letters in carefully—where they ought to have been, instead of in more easy reach of his bed—and checks three times that the set is locked after it.

The knock sounds again, and Gwaine scrubs his hands over his face and stands, opening the door. Lady Bronwen is standing in the hall—unusual to see her in this wing of the castle, to say the least. She dips in a very brief curtsey, and Gwaine nods in return. “My Lady—”

“Sir Lancelot,” she murmurs. “Have you seen him?”

“I have not,” Gwaine says. “Have you tried—”

She walks forward, and Gwaine has no choice but to back away and allow her to enter the room. At her nod, he closes and bars the door behind her.

She stands in the centre of the room for a moment, looking around—at Gwaine’s bed, Gareth’s cot, and the polished wooden box of the writing set, still left out. She walks to the window, looks out, then walks back to face Gwaine.

“Sir Gwaine, I know you know of my role in Cenred’s court,” she begins, voice low and grave.

“King Cenred’s court is no more, my Lady,” he hedges, reluctant to have her reveal herself, even to him, after so long in hiding.

Her mouth lifts in a small, humourless smile. “It is as you say,” she counters. “Therefore it is in your best interest that you listen to what I have to say, and pass on the particulars to your superiors.”

Gwaine dips his head in acquiescence. “Very well.”

She takes a deep breath, glancing to the door one last time before returning to him. “Conspiracy is afoot,” she says. “My place in court is no longer as powerful as it used to be—when all Camelot required was news of Escetia’s king. Now the men who would only dare look at me plot your downfall, and I hear merely whispers of it from my ladies, teased from their lovers.” She looks at him sharply, jaw firming. “Who they are loath to name.”

Gwaine nods again; he can allow them that much. “What can you tell me?”

“Only not to trust those from the west—they have the most to lose in Escetia’s annexing.”

It’s nothing Ector doesn’t already know, Gwaine’s sure—even he’s been aware of the animosity of a particular group of lords, and matters of court are more likely to put him to sleep than anything else.

Yet Bronwen appears genuinely agitated. Enough to risk her secrecy coming here to speak with him.

“I will pass on the message,” he assures her.

Her lips press tightly together, and she searches his gaze for a moment longer. “See that you do,” she says, and after a moment of listening at the door, she sweeps away again just as silently.

◊   ◊   ◊


The collars of the new cloaks are fur-lined, as are the soft leather gloves, and autumn is fickle in her moods, so Gwaine seems to alternate between uncomfortably hot and deliciously warm. The cloaks are also large enough to fit two shivering squires beneath when the temperature drops as the four of them are out on patrol, and when Lancelot returns from his defensive circle of their campsite—emerging from the darkness into the firelight silently as ever—he looks questioningly at Gwaine. Gwaine shrugs, arms tucked tightly about himself, and Lancelot gives him a sympathetic smile. Then he sits close enough to cover Gwaine’s night-chilled back with his own excessive drape of cloak, their fronts uncovered but warmed by the fire. Nearby, Gareth and Erin are one red-covered hillock. Their heads tuft out of the top, close enough to share the fringe of fur; Erin’s dark skin is pressed to Gareth’s fair, and they both glow in the firelight.

The fire cracks and pops, and Lancelot sighs beside him. “Are you feeling sorry for yourself because you’ve been spurned?” he murmurs at length, quiet enough for only Gwaine to hear.

Gwaine scowls. “I don’t know why I should share anything with you, given that you’ll tell me nothing of your own paramour.”

Their shoulders are already pressed up against each other, but Lancelot leans in to nudge him firmer. “You’re not exactly very good at hiding it.”

Gwaine bristles, and this time he’s inclined to not suppress his immediate defensiveness, as he has so often done in deference to Lancelot’s wisdom these long months. “Well, you’re certainly not very good at reading it, so I suppose I have nothing to worry about,” he mutters.

“I know I’ve said this before,” Lancelot returns levelly, “but it bears repeating: there’s no need to take it out on Gareth.”

Gwaine glances over to where both squires are wrapped in his cloak, and looks back at Lancelot pointedly.

Lancelot purses his lips. “There’s cruelty in avoidance also,” he says lowly. “You’ve barely acknowledged him for weeks.”

When Gwaine looks over again, it’s to find Gareth looking back, though he glances away quickly upon meeting Gwaine’s gaze. The old, familiar recoil at the judgement turns over, sore and aching, in Gwaine’s chest. “Are you suggesting he’s shifted his attentions to me?” he deflects, forcing a laugh under his breath. “Are you suggesting I accept them?”

“Don’t be obtuse,” Lancelot says quietly. “It doesn’t suit you. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Gwaine heaves a deep, reflexive sigh, and Lancelot leans a little closer as he settles, but doesn’t speak again.

“When did you last receive a letter?” Gwaine asks at length, staring into the fire, feeling Lancelot breathe beside him.

“Some weeks ago, now,” Lancelot says hesitantly, then with more conviction, “At the turn of the season. Arthur mentioned that their messenger route may be compromised by the change in weather.”

“Arthur?” Gwaine asks, momentarily distracted by this unexpected tidbit. Though Merlin had mentioned Lancelot’s missives to the Prince, back then it had been easy to construe them as knightly devotion. Lancelot himself bringing the communication up in this context gives it a whole new layer of potential meaning. He turns to look at Lancelot’s inscrutable profile.

“Yes,” Lancelot says stiffly. “I hear from both him and Guinevere.”

Gwaine turns back to the fire to ponder on this in silence. After long moments, his petulance has softened enough that he feels compelled to share something of his own. “Gareth read my letters,” he says without inflection.

“Ah.” Lancelot’s tone holds no salacious enjoyment at the news, or even that much surprise. After a few moments in which Gwaine can almost hear the wheels of his thoughts turning, Lancelot says, “I meant what I said—long ago, now—about having this opportunity to shape his behaviour and opinions. He’s not exactly Erin, after all.”

Erin, who—now he’d finished antagonising Gareth with brash, barely-veiled declarations about the virtue (or lack thereof) of the knights and royalty of Camelot—spends much of his time expounding his unsubtle opinions on people he’s unimpressed with. That being anyone who isn’t noble. Gwaine thinks Erin might have a conniption should he find out Lancelot’s true origins.

Gwaine grunts noncommittally in response to Lancelot’s reassurance—he doesn’t want to give Gareth’s rejection any more power than it already has over him by sharing that disappointment any wider. After a moment, Lancelot nudges his shoulder again. “You didn’t bring any wine, did you?”

Gwaine frowns. “Kay confiscated it before we left,” he admits sadly.

“Ah,” Lancelot says again, and lets a waft of cold air into the warm covering of the cloak when he crooks his elbow up to reach into a pocket. “Good thing I brought this, then.” He brandishes a small, road-battered flask in the space between their bodies—hiding it from the squires’ view—and when Gwaine looks up to meet his eyes, he looks decidedly mischievous.

“I knew there was a reason I was keeping you around,” Gwaine says, enjoying the honey-burn of the spirit as it goes down his throat. Lancelot laughs softly, accepting the flask back and taking a quick swig. The drink spreads warmth in Gwaine’s belly, reaching out to Lancelot’s body at his side, and the fire in front of him, soothing his nerves and the ever-present knot of loneliness.

“This was never going to be longer than a year, you know,” Lancelot says quietly, after they’ve passed the flask back and forth a few more times.

“It feels longer already,” Gwaine says morosely, and holds the next mouthful a little longer on his tongue before swallowing it down. He thinks about Merlin’s unsanctioned news of possibly being back in Camelot by spring, and wonders if Lancelot learned the same in his letters. Yet he feels like the past few weeks of sadness and uncertainty have flayed a layer off him; he feels too raw to even consider being home again.

“It will end,” Lancelot says, and perhaps it’s meant to be reassuring, but it doesn’t feel like that to Gwaine.

◊   ◊   ◊


Gwaine’s fingers are numb in his gloves, tightening stiffly as the harsh clash of steel reverberates up to his shoulders. His hair has gathered sweat then chilled against his neck, and he clenches his teeth, just wanting this to be over—with that burst of impatience, he parries and forces forward before his opponent can regain his footing, disarming him with a little more deliberate force. The man crashes into the icy mud underfoot and Gwaine grimaces in sympathy, sheathing his blade before offering the knight his hand.

Gareth’s standing by the sidelines when Gwaine trudges back through the mud, and Kay gives him a small nod when Gwaine glances to him for permission. Gareth’s lips are practically blue, hands tucked under his arms and shoulders hunched up to his ears. Gwaine frowns, and makes note to locate warmer clothes for the boy—perhaps even a cloak of his own.

“What is it?” Gwaine asks as he approaches.

Gareth chews his lips and shivers. “The seneschal would like to see you, when you’re finished,” he says, as quickly as possible.

“Very well,” Gwaine says. “Get back inside.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Gwaine watches him pick through the soggy grass and adds new boots to the list of things to obtain. He’s not even sure if he’s the one responsible for addressing the needs of Gareth’s latest growth spurt, but it’s not as if his coin is being used up in the tavern, either. He’ll ask the seneschal.

“Sir Gwaine,” Kay barks, and Gwaine turns and flexes his shoulders again, walking back onto the field.



The seneschal hands him a letter, and Gwaine’s chest constricts as he sees the familiar inked shape of his name on the front. He feels strangely reluctant to open it, and when he gets back to his room, relieved that Gareth is absent, though it’s not exactly unexpected. Even before the confrontation over the letters, Gareth had been spending much of his time in the garrison; he’s only been making himself scarcer since. A servant has been in to light the fire, though; Gwaine pauses to stoke it and add another log before finally taking the letter out of his pocket again.

The fire warm at the back of his legs and his hands clammy, he turns the letter over to open it, but pauses when he sees the seal—not the usual crudely stylised bunch of herbs that is the mark of the court physician, but the more detailed and very familiar twist of the royal dragon. Gwaine runs his fingers over the grooves of it as if to make sure his eyes aren’t deceiving him, and his weary heart feels heavy in his chest as he considers what it might mean.

Then curses himself for a coward—an overly cynical one, at that—and quickly breaks the seal away from the parchment and unfolds the letter.
Gwaine,

I must make this brief at Arthur’s request, as he is indeed reading over my shoulder this time. You, and the rest of Camelot’s emissaries in Escetia, are in mortal danger. We have learned of a conspiracy against you, coming from within the court itself. The messenger is untrustworthy; he will have brought a letter for Lord Ector telling him of an invasion in Camelot, and instructing him to send the knights home. This order will appear to have come from Arthur, but it is not: the forgery is a ploy to lure you out of the city to be ambushed in the woods on the western road, leaving those in the castle unprotected.

You must convince Lord Ector of this, and formulate a plan that keeps your knowledge of the conspiracy hidden. Arthur believes this is the only way to uproot the perpetrators from the court and disarm them, preventing any further harm being wrought upon you.

Do not doubt the veracity of this letter. I hope that you can forgive my not telling you this earlier, but the letters I’ve sent you—both this one, and all those in the past—bear an enchantment that obfuscates the contents and makes them senseless to all readers but you. Any letters you write to me with the writing set I sent you are similarly bespelled. I confessed this to Arthur and he agreed that it was the best way of conveying this message to you. If you need to prove this to others, show them Arthur’s seal—the one on the forgery will be slightly different, as will become obvious through comparison.

I am sorry. Please take care.

Merlin

Heart racing, Gwaine skims through the letter again as if expecting to see the words shift on the page and make more immediate sense. Then he stops, and has to sit on his bed, eyes closed and breathing deep for a long moment before reading again, more carefully.

Then he goes to find Lancelot.

Lancelot frowns at the letter. “‘The radishes are especially fragrant this year’?” he reads aloud, and raises an eyebrow at Gwaine.

Gwaine has to sit down again. He takes the letter back and reads it once more: the words are the same. I am sorry. Please take care. “Merlin says it’s enchanted so only I can understand it,” he says.

Lancelot’s expression shifts from one of confusion to dawning understanding. “I didn’t realise he’d told you,” he says, sounding greatly relieved. “We should warn Ector immediately. Kay is going to need to know as well; we should speak to them both at the same time—before Ector reads his letter and decides to take action.”

“You didn’t realise…” Gwaine repeats slowly, comprehension stuck on that first statement, and the tone of Lancelot’s voice behind it, and very quickly the ideas that had been drifting slowly together snap into place.

“Merlin enchanted the letter,” Gwaine says with blank realisation. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Lancelot halt his pacing. Gwaine can’t look away from the parchment though, from Merlin’s familiar handwriting. “Merlin has magic.”

He does look up at Lancelot, then, disbelief and betrayal rising thickly in his throat. “You knew?

Lancelot bows his head, pained. “I couldn’t tell you,” he says, voice thick with apology. “I promised him I—”

Gwaine jerks to his feet and takes a few tight, directionless steps across the room, turning his back to Lancelot. He tips his face up and gives a strangled laugh, not knowing how else to loosen the tightly-coiling tension within him without destroying something.

“Gwaine,” Lancelot says, voice full of pity, and when Gwaine whips around Lancelot’s standing closer behind him.

“Don’t. You— You’re both—” Gwaine shakes his head sharply, trying to dislodge all the words clamouring for release and shove them back down for another time. “We need to speak with Ector,” he says firmly, and Lancelot nods, eyes worried and mouth tight.



It takes blessedly little convincing for Kay and Ector to believe the truth of the letter once they’ve compared the seals, and Gwaine feels weak with relief when they don’t question the origin of the enchantment—or question it at all, really, beyond making Gwaine read the letter aloud three times to prove he’s not concocting the message himself. He feels a whole new sense of respect for Arthur’s choice of whom to send to Escetia in the first place. But then his thoughts careen into a different direction entirely when he remembers something from one of Merlin’s letters: Arthur backed into a corner, and Uther not standing a magic user to live once they’d been captured.

God, Merlin was worried at the weight of consequence should Arthur discover his family’s past relationship to magic—imprisoned or banished or worse, he’d said—and now… now Merlin has told Arthur he’s a sorcerer.

Lancelot’s hand on his shoulder startles Gwaine from the turmoil of his thoughts, and he blinks quickly, finding Kay and Ector watching him.

“We must behave as though we know nothing of the conspiracy,” Ector says, low and firm.

Gwaine nods jerkily. “Yes, my Lord.”

“They will expect us to act immediately. And that our guardsmen in the castle will be easily overwhelmed.”

“The hardest part will be ensuring our men are prepared without alerting the conspirators to our awareness,” Kay adds.

Ector nods. “I will stay to lead the men in fighting off dissidents within the castle,” he says. “You three must proceed on as if to Camelot, and be prepared to fight off the ambush.”

“And if their ambush is one of arrows from the trees, rather than engaging in direct combat?” Gwaine can’t help but ask, feeling bitterly aware that knights do not always behave so nobly as claimed.

“You may split up,” Ector says. “Be seen to be leaving the city together, and separate once you reach the woods.” He looks from Gwaine to Lancelot. “You are both good woodsmen, and ought to be able to locate and approach them without too much difficulty.”

“And the squires, my Lord?” Lancelot asks, and Gwaine hadn’t thought it was possible to tense further, but apparently it is.

“It will not be seen as suspicious should they be left here in safety,” Ector says. “If it comes to it, they can lend their swords to the fight here. Three knights should be able to travel with greater speed alone, after all.”

Lancelot bows his head in acknowledgement, and Gwaine feels shaky with relief—as doomed as this situation already feels, at least he won’t be worrying about Gareth amidst it all.

“Should the lords participate in the attack, try to capture them alive,” Ector continues. “Even if you cannot gain their surrender. The King will want their punishment to serve as an example to others.”

Of course. Gwaine’s stomach turns over, thinking of all the public examples Uther’s made of prisoners throughout his rule, burning alive and drowning and beheading, and Merlin, Merlin. His long closeness to the King’s son would surely not be forgiven.



He and Lancelot assist each other into armour—hopefully enough to protect them, but not so much as to rouse suspicion when they leave the city. They do so quickly and without speaking, bodies tense as they strap on their outer shells.

“He did not confide in me,” Lancelot says at length, quiet and hesitant. “It was purely by accident that I discovered his secret.”

Gwaine shakes his head shortly, though Lancelot’s confession eases some of the twisting ache in his belly.

“It doesn’t matter now,” he says, even though it does. Because they might be going to their deaths with this—more and more likely when he considers that they are three up against however many dissidents there are, from the west and perhaps elsewhere as well. And while the thought of dying in this helpless and miserable state is bad enough (and even Gwaine recognises the foolishness in numbing it even with the smallest dram), there’s no need to make Lancelot suffer the same.

But Lancelot doesn’t stop at Gwaine’s silent urging, and when he says, “I’m sure he would have told you,” it lands like a punch in Gwaine’s gut.

His skin crawls with the humiliation of it; that he’s opened himself so deeply to Merlin in these past months, made clear that he’d hold nothing back—and all the while Merlin was keeping this from him, the largest secret. He wonders just how much of what Merlin had told him was true, or whether it was just a foil for this bigger truth. He wonders what Merlin must have thought of him, and the twisting in his stomach threatens to rise to his throat.

He steps away from Lancelot. “We ought to speak with Gareth and Erin—we can’t simply ride off and tell them nothing; we wouldn’t even if we were heading for Camelot.”

Lancelot nods—expression still taut and concerned—and slings his empty pack over one shoulder before preceding Gwaine out the door.

Gwaine’s not sure if he’s surprised or not that Gareth resists being left behind—he would have put money on Gareth wanting to spend as little time in close quarters to him as possible. But on the other hand, remaining in a strange land while war rages in your own kingdom is not a fate Gwaine would like to be served. Erin’s sullenness is as predicted, though; Gwaine’s just relieved he doesn’t come out with any slurs as to how much Camelot’s invasion is deserved, though his mouth seems pursed tight to hold it back.

Gwaine realises belatedly that he’s forgotten to ask the seneschal about new clothing for Gareth, and hopes desperately that the boy won’t freeze to death in coming months, should Gwaine do as they’re pretending and not return after all. Gareth’s eyes on him are still confused and hurt, even weeks on, and—

Understanding hits Gwaine on a wave of giddy relief: it makes sense now, if the letters Gareth read were enchanted—then no wonder he didn’t understand why Gwaine was treasuring letters about radishes and who knows what else.

Gwaine almost laughs at the realisation, but thinks perhaps it wouldn’t help matters very much at all. Instead he plants his hand firm on Gareth’s shoulder—feeling a stab of guilt at the look of surprise and trepidation on Gareth’s face—and says, squeezing, “Take care. Try not to let Erin get up to too much mischief in our absence.”

Gareth looks more confused than anything, but Gwaine’s fairly sure he’s not imagining the slight softening and relief around the boy’s eyes. “Yes, Sir.”



They speak little as they ride out, each mired in their own thoughts and anticipation of the upcoming fight. Gwaine can’t see how it can end well, and keeps his mouth shut. The tension amongst them tightens as the western road approaches the woods, and Gwaine is grateful for the small mercy that no one else is on the road as they pause within sight of the trees.

“I will linger,” Kay murmurs lowly, “to give you a chance to locate the site of the ambush. Once you have, give the signal.”

Gwaine and Lancelot nod, and before they go their separate ways, Gwaine meets Lancelot’s eyes and they exchange small, grim smiles.

He rides out wide of the road, following the sound of a small brook nearby—sprung up with the melting of the first snow—and leaves Cabrion tied loosely by its banks. Then he makes his way back toward the road.

The trees are bare and stark against the white sky, though luckily most of the leaves form thick mulch underfoot, far from the loud crunch of autumn. For all that he’s silent, Gwaine doubts he’d be hidden should any of the ambushers look in his direction: the red of his cloak a veritable beacon. Still, there is enough undergrowth—and the occasional holly bush—to duck behind should he catch sight of them first.

It feels like he’s wandering interminably, but as the ground begins to rise—and he recalls the cut of the western road from the last time he travelled on it—he takes more care to be hidden from sight, recognising the strategy of choosing such a position for an ambush. Surely enough, he hears the tell-tale sounds of human interlopers as he skirts around the edge of the slope, and settles down behind a low-lying shrub to peer upwards through its spiky foliage.

He counts six men—armed and wearing muted colours, no emblems but dull chain mail over grey and brown tunics, weapons already drawn. Gwaine grits his teeth, recognising at least two of them as they turn to signal to each other; Sir Andras’ pale hair seems particularly white in the crisp light. A bird call rings out—not uncommon, but familiar in Gwaine’s ears—six on Lancelot’s side as well. After a few beats he returns it.

Within moments he hears the rhythm of a horse approaching in the distance, and as the men ahead of him still and poise, he draws his sword as quietly as possible, creeping further up the slope. At the least opportune moment, a flaw in their plan occurs to him—that upon seeing Kay appear alone, or even upon merely hearing his approach, they will realise that Lancelot and Gwaine are elsewhere. Perhaps they’ll be lucky, and the dissidents will think the sound of a single rider means that it is not their prey approaching after all.

At any rate, Gwaine doesn’t have a chance to find out, because a shout comes from the opposite side of the road along with the sound of clashing weapons, and as the men ahead of him stand to better see the cause of it, Gwaine powers forward the final few yards.

One turns to meet him, the sound of Gwaine’s approach too short a warning to properly raise his sword in defence. On some level Gwaine is glad they are already prepared to fight, for he doesn’t know if he’d be able to stab any of them in the back with their swords still sheathed, outnumbered or not. They’re not prepared enough though—at least not for an attack from behind—and he’s already downed one and is on to his second when two of the remaining men break off to run down the bank towards Kay.

Kay’s horse whinnies, high and indignant. Gwaine’s opponent is joined by another, the third clearly waiting for an opening, and they drive Gwaine back onto unsteadier footing, heels at the edge of the slope. When the third man steps forward to engage it’s finally enough to force Gwaine back, and then he’s tumbling downwards—desperately trying to keep hold of his sword and avoid impaling himself at the same time—and rolling to his feet on the road, breathless and engaged immediately by the same men as before, running down behind him.

It’s Andras facing him now and Gwaine quickly disarms him, then uses the hilt of his sword to strike him a harsh blow, knocking him to the ground. Gwaine’s unsure if he’s being merciful or not by sparing Andras for Uther’s punishment instead of giving him a quick death. Kay is fighting fiercely, having been unseated, his horse skittering back from the smell of blood: one of his opponents is half-beheaded on the ground, slumped brokenly on the black leaves. Lancelot is yet to make an appearance but Gwaine can still hear the sound of fighting from above and it gives him hope. Another man runs down, this time from Lancelot’s side, bellowing as he does so and deflecting Kay’s anticipatory thrust easily as he gets to the road.

Gwaine struggles to keep his back protected as he’s encircled, thoroughly outnumbered by men who seem unwilling to make further contact with his sword—waiting instead for him to take the offensive, leave himself open for attack. He twists his sword in a wide spin—a trick learnt from Arthur, both warning his opponents off and goading them with a blatant show of his range—but then the bitter tension is broken by the sound of another horse approaching.

The men lurch forward abruptly, as if spurred on by the potential of an evening of numbers, but are quickly scattered by the new arrival, galloping around the bend in the road at full pelt. The horse rears and shrieks at suddenly finding an armed man under its hooves, and the horse wins out—another broken body—but unseats its rider. Gwaine curses loudly and viciously: it’s Gareth, brandished sword knocked out of his hand as he falls to the ground and out of sight.

Getting through the barrier of armed men becomes more urgent then, and Gwaine lets instinct take over as he cuts and parries, peripherally aware of more men thudding down the hillside with red-cloaked Lancelot sweeping behind. He takes a couple of blows that he barely feels, mostly protected by the mail, and grateful for Sir Leon’s lessons in how to fight without the ridiculously long cloak getting in the way.

Then it’s over—three disarmed men kneeling before Kay, who’s clutching his sword with a wavering, blood-soaked hand; Lancelot in pursuit of the final pair on foot through the trees. Lifeless bodies sprawl on the ground at Gwaine’s feet, their stillness odd when even Gwaine’s breath roils in the air as he pants with exertion. The horses remain nearby, steam puffing out of them too as they paw uneasily at the wet ground.

And Gareth—Gareth on the ground near where his horse dumped him, struggling to rise onto his elbows and failing, blood as bright as Gwaine’s cloak seeping through his too-thin tunic.

“Idiot, idiot, idiot,” Gwaine chants through clenched teeth, skidding to a halt next to him and kneeling on the wet leaves, dropping his sword by Gareth’s side, reaching for the neck of the tunic with intentions to tear it away and ascertain the extent of the injury. Gareth rears away at the ripping of cloth, pushing himself back against the cold earth and then clawing at Gwaine’s vambraces when he discovers he’s too hurt to get away. Then his sharp little boot knife is close to Gwaine’s throat, his teeth bared in a snarl, lips and face white.

“I’m not about to ravish you, you little fool,” Gwaine snarls back, jerking out of reach of the dagger and slamming Gareth’s wrist to the ground, disarming him easily.

Gareth thrashes, trying to bend around and kick. “Stay still,” Gwaine commands, and Gareth finally does, panting and still glaring bloody murder up at him. His wrist strains in Gwaine’s grip, his other hand pressed tight against the growing bloodstain.

It’s harder to uncover the wound one-handed, but Gwaine manages with some fumbling to get the rough tunic out of the way, and the softer shirt beneath.

His first thought is that Gareth is already injured, and that’s why his chest is bandaged, but then he sees the sweeping gash all up Gareth’s side. It’s cut into the linen already binding his chest, the cloth loosening and slipping away, blood soaking into its hewn edges, but Gwaine can still see what’s revealed beneath it—the unmistakable curve of a breast.

He jerks back in shock, though his grip on Gareth’s wrist tightens instinctively; Gareth flinches. Gwaine can’t help but look down his body, then, but Gareth’s loose, rough trousers show nothing and hide everything. The always-uncovered smoothness of his jaw and throat is more revealing then; the fine, noble angles of his face seeming more delicate than ever. He looks miserably up at Gwaine, chest still heaving, then closes his eyes, turning his head away.

Gareth is losing more colour, Gwaine realises, and despite the fact that he’s still reeling, he lets go of Gareth’s wrist to bring both hands instead to examine the wound. A few more rips of the tunic, and it’s forming a makeshift bandage around the worst of it; Gwaine keeps his hands as far away from the other bandage as possible.

“Don’t tell them,” Gareth whispers, the first time he’s spoken, and when Gwaine looks up, Gareth’s staring at him with desperate intensity. “Please. Please. I can explain.”

Gwaine can’t help it: he presses a soothing hand to Gareth’s forehead, and the boy hitches out a voiceless sob when Gwaine nods.

By the time Lancelot approaches them, Gareth is wrapped soundly in Gwaine’s cloak. Lancelot’s leading his horse as well, and he helps them both into the saddle, Gareth held carefully before Gwaine.

“You’re a brave fool,” Lancelot tells Gareth worriedly. “How did you even know we were here? Or were you just riding after us?”

“Erin told me,” Gareth mumbles, head wobbling on his neck as he teeters on the edge of a swoon. Gwaine meets Lancelot’s eyes with an equal amount of concern at that particular piece of news, but it can wait; he spurs the horse onwards.

“Who else knows?” he murmurs into Gareth’s ear when they’re well out of the woods, feeling every unsteady breath Gareth takes through the arm wrapped low around his chest.

“The Lady Bronwen,” Gareth slurs, and Gwaine has to duck his head low to hear it. “Couldn’t hide it from her.”

◊   ◊   ◊


The lower town is almost as deserted as the first day they rode into it, and there are signs of combat in the castle’s square that are yet to be blotted up with sand. There’s the sound of fighting somewhere in the castle, but Gwaine disregards it as he hurries Gareth into the wing he visits rarely. His own body aches and stings in various places, but the lingering fumes of combat prevent any of them from taking too much of his attention, though he stumbles a little as he needs to dip and scoop Gareth into his arms to make it up the stairs.

He pounds on Bronwen’s door, and when she wisely doesn’t answer, shouts, “My Lady, please!

The door finally cracks open, and Bronwen peers out at him, holding an ornate dagger with a wicked point. She quickly lowers it and opens the door wider when she sees Gareth in Gwaine’s arms.

Bronwen leads him to the low couch by the window and he gently sets the boy (boy) down. He’s unconscious now, and Gwaine kneels beside him.

“Wait here,” Bronwen instructs, resting a hand briefly on his shoulder, and when she returns with a basin of warm water and begins unwrapping the makeshift bandage, Gwaine looks away.

“You can look again,” Bronwen says at length, and Gwaine’s eyes skitter over the clean drape of cloth she’s laid over Gareth’s breasts. Bronwen hands him the wet cloth she’s been using to mop up the blood. “Help me with this.”

He rises creakily to his feet and stumbles to join her on the opposite side of the couch, feeling the weight of each chain of his mail, and when he drops to his knees again he winces at the impact. Bronwen gives him a wryly sympathetic look, and directs him to blot away the blood as she sews up the gash.

“Did you know?” she murmurs at length.

Gwaine blinks, mesmerised by the assured movements of her dark hands against Gareth’s overly pale skin. “No,” he croaks, and Bronwen sighs.

“So much of survival relies on keeping secrets,” she says, voice still calm and flat with concentration. “I don’t think I’d like to walk around with my insides out for all to see, anyway. Certainly not amongst this many vultures.”

Gwaine’s mouth twists weakly in agreement, and he stares at the soft flesh of Gareth’s belly, drinking in each tiny rise and fall as he breathes shallowly.

At last she ties off the silk thread, leaving a long row of dark stitches along Gareth’s skin. Setting the needle aside, she gestures for Gwaine to assist her again. Though feeling clumsy and reluctant, at her request he kneels around to the opposite side of the couch again to best brace Gareth’s back as she sits him up enough to wrap fresh bandages around his torso.

“I used to do this for my husband,” she confesses, tone light. “He always said my needlework was better than the surgeon’s.” Despite the humour, there’s a low note of grief in her voice, and Gwaine smiles a little but doesn’t press for further information.

Bronwen pulls the red cloak back over Gareth at last—taking a last few moments to dip the cloth in the basin again and wash the last traces of blood and dirt from the boy’s face. Then she looks up at Gwaine again.

“You’re hurt.”

Gwaine rises to his feet as she does—though by the time he’s made it to standing, she’s already walked around the couch. He finds he’s struggling to process her meaning, but when she cups his jaw with her hand and tilts his head to the side, pain burns brightly, sharpening his focus.

“Sit down,” she says, dragging out a low seat from her dresser and pressing Gwaine down onto it, then deftly unknotting his belt and tugging the chain mail loose. “I used to do this for my husband too,” she says as she lifts the mail up and off him, then gets to work on the gambeson.

Gwaine responds with a hiss of pain—with the sudden receding of weight, a cavalcade of minor hurts make themselves known. A spot high on his shoulder, at the base of his neck where his collarbone angles up, burns particularly; it’s a place that would have been protected by a coif, had they been able to properly armour themselves without causing suspicion. It’s there that Bronwen focuses her attention, easing the gambeson off his shoulders and pulling aside the collar of his shirt.

After a moment of examination she steps away, gathering the basin from near the couch and moving out of Gwaine’s sight again, the pad of her footsteps soft on the stone floor. He catches a glimpse of movement and turns to see that it’s him—reflected in the sliver of visible mirror, mostly draped over with a fine cloth on Bronwen’s dressing table. Mirrors being a rarity in both the nomadic lifestyle and that of a knight, it’s been some time since Gwaine’s caught sight of his own reflection with such clarity. The covering means he can only see half of his face—long hair matted with blood that spreads darkly down his undershirt, and his expression blank with exhaustion.

“I can wash this,” Bronwen offers, setting the fresh basin on the dresser, her cool fingers easing his bloodied hair away from the wound. The steam quickly obscures the glass of the mirror, leaving Gwaine just a dark blur of colour; somehow it makes him feel less disconnected than his reflection did.

“No,” Gwaine says, voice rough from not speaking. “Cut it off. If you have shears?”

Bronwen smiles. “Better than the surgeon’s,” she says, reaching over him to tug open a drawer in the dresser, retrieving the hefty steel implement from within. She gives the shears a demonstrative snip in the air, then begins to cut.

The sound of it is loud in Gwaine’s ears, the occasional cool brush of steel against the back of his neck prickling shivers across his skin. Bronwen crosses from one shoulder to the other, then her firm fingers rub against the nape of his neck. “How short?”

He remembers the feel of Merlin’s hands on his face, Merlin pushing his hair back to kiss him, Merlin’s fingers against his scalp. He turns his head a little to feel the brush of hair against his skin, and remembers the sight of himself moments ago, bedraggled with blood. “Shorter,” he says.

“In the Roman style?” She pushes her fingers gently up the back of his skull, and sensation shivers through him as she touches him like he hasn’t been touched for months. “Seeking to emulate your King?”

“Not that short,” he recants.

She laughs softly, continuing with more care; Gwaine closes his eyes as she trims around his face.

“There,” she says at last, setting the shears back down again.

Gwaine turns his head and it feels lighter, even as the movement stings; when he touches the sore place at his neck his fingers come away wet.

“If your vanity is quite satisfied, I’ll take care of that, now,” she says drily.

The warm water makes him shudder; it feels amazingly good after so much cold and tension and pain, and he has to force himself not to hunch around the hollow of his chest. The bathing cleans away the worst of the sting as well, leaving him with a dull ache that seems to settle in the base of his throat. She doesn’t stitch the wound, but binds it firmly, and Gwaine takes a shaky breath as her hand smooths over the bandage and then up onto the bare skin of his throat. He looks up at her—kind eyes staring down into his—and her hand strokes into his hair again. She smiles, searching his eyes, and then leans down to kiss him.

The knot in his throat tightens and swells, fed by the soft feel of her lips on his. It feels like an age since he’s been touched with gentle fondness like this, having made do with the muted fervour of fantasy for so long. The sensation rushes over his skin like the wash of warm water, spreading down his chest and up his legs, making his bruises ache and cuts sting.

“I assume you did that for your husband as well,” Gwaine murmurs after he pulls away from her, feeling more alert and aware than he has in hours. His hand has come to rest on the curve of her waist, her skin warm through the woollen drape of her gown. He wants to tighten his hold, to move his hand and touch more of her body, to pull her down into his lap… But more than that, he wants something else entirely.

“My lady,” he says, angling his head to press his forehead to hers instead when she leans in for another kiss. “Thank you.”

She sighs, laughs a little, and manages to sneak in another quick press of her lips below his eye before straightening; his hand falls away with a little regret. “Knights of Camelot,” she says ruefully, and turns away.

◊   ◊   ◊


Erin and Lancelot both seem keen to spend a lot of time with a convalescing Gareth—Erin uncharacteristically attentive—so it’s a few days before Gwaine gets a moment to speak with him alone.

“What am I to do with you now?” Gwaine begins.

Gareth’s expression tenses and shifts into the same old mulishness. It’s the familiarity of it that Gwaine’s struggling most with. He still can’t make himself think of Gareth as she.

As if he’s read Gwaine’s mind, Gareth retorts, “Same as you’ve always done. Nothing’s changed. I’ve not changed.”

Gwaine thinks that’s rather oversimplifying things, but concedes to the fundamental truth of it. After all, it’s that Gwaine knows now that changes things.

“What’s your real name?” he asks.

Gareth’s jaw firms stubbornly. “I’m not telling you.”

“Why not?”

“Because then you’ll want to call me that, and I’m not! I’m not her, I’m Gareth!”

“All right, easy.” Gwaine holds his hands up as Gareth struggles to rise. “Don’t do yourself any more damage.”

“And I’m not fragile, either.”

“No, you’re just a disobedient little fool.”

“I was helping you!”

Gwaine huffs a sharp breath out his nose, forcing himself to put the argument aside. “How did you come to be here, then? Are you a spy as well?”

Gareth rolls his eyes and Gwaine has to agree: the theory makes little sense.

“No. I just want—I just want to be a knight. I’m not here to cause any trouble.”

“Is that why you insist on going against my every order, then?” Gwaine asks pointedly, and Gareth scowls.

“I will tell you,” he says, biting off his words. “My father died before I came of age. My family was never wealthy to begin with, and King Uther would only provide us with a pension should our family continue in service to him. My mother and I decided that when I came of age, I would be sent to Camelot to be squired—a handmaiden’s wage would never be enough to support both her and my sisters, and I had no wish to be subject to someone else’s whims for the rest of my life. We were far enough away from the King’s scrutiny; I’m sure he cared not a whit whether my father had sons or daughters. All I needed was a letter bearing my father’s seal, and no one questioned anything.”

The story resonates—so close to Gwaine’s own, and makes him realise abruptly just how fortunate he was. Caerleon’s king had been crueller than Uther in that respect, perhaps—withholding a pension regardless of the existence of heirs—but at least Gwaine’s mother had family to go to, and ultimately, very little personal sacrifice had been required of him.

Gareth can tell he’s softening; his voice lowers to an earnest plea. “Please don’t send me away. It wasn’t forced on me. I want this.” He pauses, chews his lip. “I like being your squire.”

Gwaine laughs, and Gareth’s mouth twists into a wry smile in response.

“You speak as though you’re not subject to my every whim,” Gwaine counters.

“Yes, well, Sir Kay made it clear to me that there were some I could refuse you on,” Gareth says slyly.

Gwaine snorts and shakes his head, and on that topic, it occurs to him: “What is there between you and Erin?”

Gareth pulls a face. “Nothing at all, he’s a pompous ass.”

“He’s rather attentive, for nothing but a pompous ass,” Gwaine points out.

Gareth frowns, expression turning more serious. “He feels guilty,” he says softly. “His family was from the west. He heard of the plans for your ambush, and feared for you.”

Gwaine leans back in surprise—if what Gareth is saying is true, then perhaps Erin’s constant bluster was only that after all.

“Please don’t tell him about me.”

“I won’t,” Gwaine says, sighing deeply, realising just how much he’d already given in to Gareth’s wishes, before the conversation even began. “So long as you don’t go getting yourself into any… trouble.”

Gareth’s lip curls in childish disgust. “As if I’d want to!”

“Well, from the way you’ve been looking at Lancelot…”

Gareth reddens. “Nothing to say of the way you have,” he retorts, then snaps his mouth shut quickly.

Gwaine laughs again, and Gareth slants him a sideways look, calculating.

“Why were you so angry that I read all your vegetable letters, anyway?” Gareth asks curiously.

Vegetable letters. That explains just what Merlin’s words had been enchanted into. Gwaine smirks, projecting an air of elusive mystery. “That, my boy, is a tale for another time.”

“But I just told you—!”

Gwaine points a finger at Gareth. “Squire.” He points to himself. “Knight. The orders only go in one direction.”

Gareth scowls again, crossing his arms as he sinks back to the bed, but his mouth is twitching as if he’s resisting a smile.

◊   ◊   ◊


The dissidents linger in the castle dungeons—the traitorous messenger, a handful of knights and lords captured by Ector and his men in the castle, and those who staged the ambush in the woods. Andras is one of the few left alive from that encounter, and despite the man’s betrayal—and his persistent contempt for Gwaine even before then—Gwaine feels uneasy at the thought of him being subjected to Uther’s form of justice. Though he wonders if some of the prisoners might die from the cold before they can even face it.

A new messenger—one of the guardsmen who’d marched with them from Camelot—rides back at great speed the day after the uprising is quelled, and a little over a week later he returns, bearing orders.

There’s no letter from Merlin; but then, Gwaine’s not sure why he was expecting there would be. He hadn’t sent one with the rider to Camelot, after all.

Now that the conspiracy has been revealed and the violent suppression of it over, the tense occupation it provided Gwaine has burnt away, leaving him to dwell on the means Merlin had used to convey the warning. Doing so leaves him feeling tender and raw, for not only did Merlin not trust him enough to share his secret without his hand being forced, but the disclosure placed his life in danger. And being an entire kingdom away, there’s nothing Gwaine can do about it. The thought that there could be a more dire reason for Merlin’s silence, than merely waiting for Gwaine to speak first, makes Gwaine’s stomach knot painfully and bile rise in his throat.

When Gwaine is called to Ector’s rooms for a private meeting a few days later he’s not surprised—for Ector has surely spent the time since the uprising ruthlessly re-evaluating the Escetian court, and just which of the nobles he can trust in their claims of loyalty. Gwaine feels on edge himself; likewise suspicious anew of anyone but his fellows from Camelot.

Lancelot is already waiting when Gwaine arrives, and he casts Gwaine an apologetic look. That’s not unusual either; Gwaine has barely been able to bring himself to speak with Lancelot more than politeness demands since Merlin’s letter, humiliation and jealousy crawling unpleasantly under his skin when he thinks of what Lancelot has known all along. Naturally, Lancelot is infuriatingly empathetic; Gwaine finds himself wishing fervently for the brashness of Elyan, or the stoicism of Percival—anyone who would just let him get on with his self-pity and resentment without any kind of sympathy.

It’s a relief when Kay strides in hurriedly, and Ector begins. “It is the King’s wish that the lords who led the uprising are to be taken to Camelot for execution,” he says without preamble. “But he is also aware of our precarious state. When the roads are safe enough to send reinforcements in return, Sir Lancelot will escort the prisoners to Camelot, along with two of Lord Maris’ sons as a sign of good will.”

The solid block of ice that seems to have taken up permanent residence in Gwaine’s gut turns painfully. It’s just like the other time—called into a room to listen obediently while a noble tells him what will be done with him—only this time Gwaine’s staying rather than going, and the sinking feeling is stale disappointment rather than frantic loss. He still can’t talk, though. Perhaps that’s what knighthood has done to him: stoppered all reasonable protest and turned him into another voiceless piece on the board.

“And the other imprisoned knights, my Lord?” Kay asks.

“It is the Prince’s wish that they be forgiven, should they seek to make amends.”

They bow in acknowledgment of Ector’s orders, and he dismisses them.

Lancelot catches Gwaine’s arm in the corridor outside, and Gwaine braces himself.

“I’m sorry,” Lancelot says, and doesn’t disappoint expectations; the frank concern in his eyes makes Gwaine twitch out of his grip.

“It’s nothing,” Gwaine dismisses. “Better you than me.” And he’s not entirely sure it’s a lie.

Knowing Merlin is magic causes no waning of Gwaine’s affection, but Merlin’s silence has twisted it into something painful. Gwaine was stripped bare by the last words he penned to Merlin, and remains so as long as that letter is left unanswered. He doesn’t know what kind of welcome he’d get, should he return to Camelot in Lancelot’s place—and his sickening worry that he’s overstepped the boundary of what Merlin’s willing to share with him continually contorts back bitterly onto itself, for how could he be so preoccupied with such a thing when Merlin’s very life is at risk?

“Gwaine,” Lancelot murmurs, lower. When Gwaine tries to step away and walk on, Lancelot herds him into an alcove, one of the few free of the empty suits of armour. It’s probably the most impolite thing Gwaine’s ever seen Lancelot do, and surprise keeps him in place instead of shoving free. “The Prince won’t let anything happen to him.”

“You seem sure of that,” Gwaine says bluntly, more than a little rude himself.

“I am,” Lancelot says simply. “I know Arthur.”

“Well, undoubtedly you know him better than I,” Gwaine bites out, and pushes past him and away.

Head bowed as if he deserves Gwaine’s acrimony, Lancelot doesn’t stop him.

◊   ◊   ◊


Not a week later, the skies become dense with snow. Thrust up high on the rock, the castle is wreathed in air that’s suffocatingly cold and damp; Gwaine feels the perpetual ache of it in his chest. The snow doesn’t cease for another week after that, and with a thick shroud of white across the kingdom—as far as Gwaine can see from the castle, anyway—the faint hope for another messenger arriving from Camelot dwindles.

Unlike the autumn rains, the snow falls silently, and indeed its thick blanket seems to insulate the citadel from any sound at all; the mood it projects vacillates between eerie and peaceful. With his hair mostly shorn away, the winter chill breathes that much colder, and Gwaine sleeps with his cloak spread over his blankets, Merlin’s scarf tucked around his neck. It seems foolish to treasure it as something kept apart, when it may serve this more practical purpose as well; it doesn’t lose its preciousness by being kept so close.

The cold is still enough to disturb Gwaine’s sleep; on the tenth day since the snow began, he wakes with his bones aching with it. Before he can think on it too long, he pushes out of bed, double-layer of stockings barely protecting his feet from the icy stone of the floor. He gathers his cloak around him, nestling the fur collar up around Merlin’s scarf, and looks to Gareth: the boy is just a blanket-covered lump, not even his hair exposed. Breath visible before him, Gwaine hurries to the fire, coaxing it back to life. When it’s crackling warmly again, he turns to go back to bed, and discovers there’s a letter on his pillow.

His breath freezes painfully in his chest at the sight of the familiar shape of his name on the parchment, and the blob of wax is hard and icy against his fingers when he turns the letter over.
Dear Gwaine,

Forgive me if I cannot do this every time. I am uncertain if this will reach you at all—the spell is one I haven’t tried before, and although Arthur knows now, he has forbidden me practising magic in the castle. I suppose I should be relieved that I’m not in the dungeons, as far as reactions go. I hope you can forgive me for not telling you of my magic earlier, especially as you now know that my letters to you were in no risk of being read by another.

All that aside, I am so very relieved to know that you are safe. And must belatedly thank you for your last letter—I am not as capable at articulating my desire for you, I’m afraid, especially when the things you’ve written steal my words away, along with any hope of coherency.

I hope you are able to write again soon, and that you are keeping warm.

Yours,
Merlin

“What’s the matter?” Gareth mumbles, and Gwaine starts, forcing his breath to steady. The boy is still mostly swaddled by blankets, his eyes bleary with sleep, but he is peering at Gwaine with curiosity nonetheless.

“Nothing,” Gwaine whispers, clutching his own blankets tighter around him, trying not to let in any of the chill while still holding the letter far enough back that he can read it. “Go back to sleep.”

◊   ◊   ◊


Gwaine keeps the letter locked in his writing kit for the better part of a week. A childish part of him feels resentful that any delay of his reply will be attributed to the weather, given how agonising the wait had been for Gwaine, and just how comparatively effortless it had been for Merlin to end it.

Even when Gwaine finds himself taking out the letter again, it’s as if he’s hardened since he last read it. Instead of sending him into trembling relief as it had the first time, Merlin’s blithe politeness now provokes him into obstinacy. Gwaine finds himself stomping around the castle in a foul mood—not helped by the fact that he is confined there by the weather, as are its other inhabitants. In fact, antagonising those around him seems to be one of the few things able to distract him and provide the slightest relief in tension. Gareth—who usually matches Gwaine’s obnoxious goading with his own prickly stubbornness—is driven first to snapping back, then to outright shouting; and then at last into storming off to seek Lancelot’s company instead.

Then, finally, Gwaine feels ready to pick up his quill again.
Dear Merlin,

I will not deny that since finding out about your magic, I have found myself questioning why you kept it a secret, to be revealed only reluctantly in the direst of circumstances. Surely I have made it clear that it would not be something I held against you? When Lancelot told me he already knew, I felt a fool, thinking back on how long he had known more about you than I, when I had thought otherwise.

But you must know that even now, knowing that no others will read this, writing acknowledgment of your magic on parchment makes me sick with worry. Whenever you have spoken to me of magic in your letters, it has been to talk of how dangerous it is in Camelot, and how ruthless Uther’s champions still are in their persecution of magic users. Even if Arthur has not turned you in, he has forbidden you from practising magic—probably for your own safety—and yet, you spell a letter to my pillow.

I know I cannot ask you to share everything with me; to give up secrets you wish to remain hidden. But please, please do not endanger yourself when I am too far away to have any hope of protecting you.

Yours,
Gwaine

Gwaine’s reply stays in his pocket for over a week. Not that he hasn’t walked past the seneschal’s door several times in his endless, brooding circuits through the castle’s dim corridors. His glower warns off any who try to make conversation, until his only companions are the decorative suits of armour: blank stares silently mocking through their empty eye slits, hollow carapaces gleaming in the oily torchlight.

Lancelot’s jaw is tight when he approaches Gwaine again; and this time, he doesn’t try to soothe Gwaine with gentle words. Nor does he confront him in anger, which Gwaine’s half-hoping for, instead just stating plainly, “There is a messenger going to Camelot in four days. Do you have anything to send, or shall I pass on in my letter to Guinevere that you’re still alive?”

Gwaine’s not easily cowed, but he does feel immediately lighter upon handing over the letter. Lancelot doesn’t seem surprised, by the letter or Gwaine’s truculent expression.

◊   ◊   ◊


It’s more than a month later—a month of the kingdom smothered with snow, the castle stale with irritatingly familiar faces, and Gwaine’s stomach twisting with nervous anticipation—before another messenger returns, dragging himself half-frozen through the courtyard as Gwaine watches from the battlements.
Dear Gwaine,

You must not think yourself a fool—nor that I share more of myself with Lancelot than with you, for that could not be further from the truth.

But you also mustn’t think that I need protecting. I have survived in the royal household for years as Arthur’s servant, practising magic without Uther’s knowledge, even when he had all his wits about him. It is not the fact of my magic that I wished to keep from you; of course I know that you would not betray me. Rather, I’ve feared that the deeds I committed during my time in hiding would surely change your opinion of me.

For my past is not unsullied, and as much as I have been in an agony of indecision over sharing it with you, I fear I must now, lest your opinion of me worsen merely through my continued secrecy. I have blood on my hands: seen death and despair both directly and indirectly caused by my actions, and the choices I have made. Hiding in Uther’s household has led me to betray countless others, and my interventions against my own kind have perpetuated suffering that I myself have escaped. Not to mention the constant, profound deception of the people I care for most.

How could I have shared this with you, knowing the regard you held me in? How can I accept courtship, when these stains on my character remain so indelible? I am not like Gwen—pure and virtuous, destined to be matched with a similarly noble spirit.

I fear, so greatly, that you will not be as inclined to hold me in your affections upon discovering these things about me, for all that it’s a reaction I deserve. From our first meeting I felt a kinship with you, and since then the feeling has grown into something much greater. Your achievement of knighthood has brought me nothing but joy, but I do not want to lead you away from the honourable path you seek to follow.

I hope you will still feel inclined to write to me, but if you should not, please fear no repercussions—I will respect your decision, even as I treasure what we have had.

Yours,
Merlin

Gwaine reads it again immediately, even as the words wrench harder the second time. They make him recall every moment he’d made an attempt to woo Merlin with chivalric gestures, seen now with a fresh lens of what Merlin had been hiding from them all; not just his magic but the things he’d done and regretted so deeply, that he’d had to bear alone.

And of course, Gwaine cannot help but return again to how Merlin had thought Gwaine would react to learning of it, the feeling like the catch of a hangnail on yanked fabric. For all that he feels almost overwhelmed with the depth of what Merlin had been keeping secret, those assumptions sting—that Merlin would think him so fickle.

Though the afternoon is already darkening into night—hurried along by the low, wet cloud shrouding the castle—Gwaine lights the torches and takes out his writing instruments, resting the parchment on the closed lid of the kit.
Dear Merlin,

You called me an idiot once, and I feel I should return the favour now. Of course I still feel inclined to write to you, though I am beginning to understand Arthur's frequent exasperation and urge to throw things. Perhaps it was when you fetched me for a jaunt in the Perilous Lands that any remaining thoughts I might have had of you as a helpless maiden were dismissed, if they were ever there to begin with. If you'll recall, when we first met we were both bludgeoning thugs over the head with jugs of mead; don’t think that I’ve forgotten that particular kinship either.

Perhaps in knowing that, you can forgive my protective instincts: the only thing I’m really very good at is swinging a sword, and I can’t help but want to swing it at any hint of a threat to those I love. And though last time I told you this you denied it quick as you please, the truth of it remains: you are the reason I am a knight of Camelot, and so long as you are in Arthur's service, so too shall I remain. The only path I wish to follow is the one I walk with you beside me, whether it is in the service of your King or not.

I do not doubt that whatever deeds you've committed that rest so heavily on your conscience, they were in service of the greater good that you pursue in serving Arthur. Do you think I would hold you to different standards than I hold myself? That just because Arthur has touched his sword to my shoulder, that the blood on my own hands merely washes away? Since we have begun writing to each other I have killed, and not for the first time—just the first time it has been sanctioned by a King.

I hope that you in turn do not think less of me for stating it so baldly. I have spoken to you before of my belief in what constitutes an honourable existence—and it has very little to do with birthright or knighthood. In fact it was the moment when you sought me out to go and rescue Arthur—a quest far beyond the duties of a prince’s manservant—that truly turned my heart to you, from cherished friendship to something far more. Your choices there were made free of the expectations of others, and I find that the opposite of reprehensible, despite what you may think.

Maybe we are both deluded; maybe we are both murderers justifying our crimes. But even if you thoroughly believe this—which I don’t think you do, for you seem to care for me, and I have committed no less atrocity than you—it will not drive me from your side. If we are villains, then let us be so together, and we can run away from noble Camelot and live a life of crime.

For I would do so, if you bid me to—I long to see you again as much as ever, in fact, no: my recent fear for your safety has left me wanting you even more. You need only say the word, and I’ll leave this place and return to you.

Yours,
Gwaine

It’s fully dark by the time he finishes writing, too late to take the letter to the seneschal, and he lies awake half the night, unable to stop himself from turning Merlin’s words over and over in his mind, and his own words as well—wondering if he ought to cast the letter into the fire and start over.

Dawn has him wide awake and freezing again. Though he drops the letter off as soon as he’s able to cram his numb feet into his boots and get out the door, the seneschal tells him the passage is too treacherous to send a man through, and no communication will be sent until the thaw.

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Part Five