hope: Art of a woman writing from tour poster (merlin - gwaine & merlin)
puddingsmith ([personal profile] hope) wrote2011-06-06 09:24 pm

Along a Wandering Wind (3/6)

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

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Part Three

After two weeks occupying Cenred’s castle, Gwaine’s unsure whether or not he’s relieved that no blood has been spilt. Of course, especially in a kingdom so decimated by war, and with so few of his own fellows, he’s not keen for further lives to be lost. But if something doesn’t break the oppressive tension that coils around the castle and its people, he might go mad.

As it is, it’s only Kay’s strict and very specific orders that prevent Gwaine from seeking release in the lower town—in a tavern or few he’s sure he can remember from previous visits—though he does use a portion of his salary to bribe kitchen hands to refill his wineskin on a regular basis.

Salaries are distributed by Ector’s seneschal, a man who’s worn a permanent scowl since his first run-in with his Escetian predecessor. It’s he who delivers the letter, calling Gwaine back as he’s leaving with heavier pockets. Gwaine waits, mildly perplexed, while the seneschal leafs through the parchment on his desk, muttering, before handing Gwaine a small folded square, sealed with a misshapen blob of wax.

Gwaine examines it in confusion, flipping between his carefully-penned name and the unknown seal. “Whose is this?” he asks, holding the letter under the seneschal’s nose again.

The man sighs, giving Gwaine an irritated look before peering back down at the seal. “Court physician,” he says shortly before looking back to his papers.

Gwaine blinks in confusion, and when he doesn’t leave, the seneschal stills his hands on his papers and glares up at Gwaine balefully. “Camelot’s court physician. A messenger arrived yesterday morning.”

“A messenger from Camelot,” Gwaine confirms, excitement springing in his chest.


“How often—”

The seneschal shrugs. “I cannot say, as scheduling regular routes and times would be unwise, considering the current political climate,” he says drily.

“Could I—”

“Bring your letters back here, and they’ll go with the next rider to Camelot.”

His brusque tone indicates that it’s the last question he’ll answer, but Gwaine’s fairly skipping out the door already, clutching the letter tightly with the irrational fear that he’ll drop it and be unable to find it again.

It’s not hard to find an unoccupied corner of the castle, and Gwaine tucks himself into an alcove with light coming in via an arrow slit above, along with a damp waft of salty air. Settled, he just holds the letter for a moment longer, running his fingertips over the letters of his name before turning it over. He slides his thumbs under the edges of the parchment, and breaks the seal open.

Dear Gwaine, it reads,
It is my deep wish that this letter find you well and arrived without incident. Lord Ector sent word of his success in convincing the lords of the court to swear fealty to Camelot, but I know your propensity to get into trouble—I hope none has found you yet. Although it is probably too much to hope that you don’t go seeking your own, at the bottom of a cup or elsewhere.

Arthur tells me he sent a squire with you, a boy from Camelot’s west. Apparently he’d not even been to the city before, so it must be very different indeed, to be whisked away even further from home. I know you’ll do well to take care of him, and that your connection will be very beneficial for both of you. He has been training to care for you as a knight, after all.

I wish I had more news to give you of Camelot, but there are particulars not suitable to be written here. There is sadly little gossip to convey. Quite a large number of new squires have been brought in for training, and their tendency to become distracted has driven Sir Bors to apoplexy more than once. I think he is also concerned at the increased time Sir Leon is spending with Arthur: there are things set in motion, and as they change so too do the roles of the remaining knights. I cannot say more than that in this letter; if we were face-to-face it would be otherwise.

It is one of many reasons I wish you were here, though of course I do not need another lecture from Arthur on why it is best that you are there instead. Guinevere is feeling the loss as well—she’s grieving for Morgana, I fear, and pining in her own quiet way over those both near and far. I worry for her—Arthur is reluctant to give her duties below her station, and there are no more royal ladies to see to. Gaius has been giving her things to do, which I think they both appreciate, especially as most of my waking hours are taken up seeing to Arthur, now. I think it is good for her, caring for others in such a direct way—I was never really any good at the healing side of things, much to Gaius’ disappointment. And having Elyan at hand must be a balm on her soul. I do wonder that she hasn’t moved into a room in the castle, which would be closer to all of us.

I hope you find a moment to write to me, as I do think of you often, mainly in the vain hope that you manage to avoid further altercations with giant pheasants bent on your destruction.


Gwaine reads it through twice more and laughs—he can’t help it; two asides from Merlin on missing him, and a whole passage on the state of Gwen’s heart. He folds the parchment again and holds it against his lips, unable to keep from smiling. Yours, yours, yours Gwaine’s heart beats steadily, a response forming already. Dear Merlin, he’ll begin. Your concern for my wellbeing is truly heartening. I will convey your touching regard to the next giant pheasant I come across, as they are quite common here, and good drinking companions besides…

◊   ◊   ◊

Merlin’s blithe assumption of Gwaine’s goodwill pricks at him; he realises he’s barely seen Gareth in a week—let alone exchanged words with him—for all that they share a sleeping space.

Finding him with Lancelot deftly punctures Gwaine’s good mood.

Gareth looks different, and Gwaine thinks that surely it hasn’t been that long since he’s seen him, until he realises it’s because the boy is smiling—unselfconscious and genuine, eyes focused in concentration on Lancelot’s clearly projected moves as he spars; as if he doesn’t even realise he’s doing it. It makes Gwaine hesitant to approach—he can only remember Gareth seeming guarded around him, or worried or morose.

Abruptly Gwaine can’t tell if the stab of bitterness he feels is directed inward, at knowing that he’s not the man Merlin hopes for; or toward Lancelot, for so effortlessly fulfilling the role that Gwaine can’t stop himself resisting.

And then Gareth—tongue sticking out in concentration—attempts a very familiar move; engaging his sword with Lancelot’s and attempting to force it from Lancelot’s grip with a twist. The move requires more strength and dexterity than Gareth’s weak wrists possess, though, and upon his clumsy failure Lancelot laughs.

Bracing himself for a condemnation of the trick move, Gwaine is fairly gobsmacked when instead Lancelot says, “Think that one needs a little more work—try it slower, at first. Though once you practise your basics more, it will come easier.”

Gwaine can’t hide any longer; he saunters out of his hiding place and onto the lawn they’re practising on. “I thought that one was out of the rule book,” he says laconically, letting some of his genuine confusion bleed through as he meets Lancelot’s eyes.

Lancelot nods and smiles; a little apologetically, Gwaine thinks. Or perhaps he’s reading that because that’s what he wants to see. “It’s not exactly a dishonest move, is it?” Lancelot reasons. “Perhaps it should be added to the rule book.”

Gwaine smirks. “Dishonest,” he repeats. “Where I come from, we call them dirty.” He slants Gareth a confiding look. “I could teach you some more dirty moves.”

Lancelot laughs. He sheathes his sword and claps Gwaine on the shoulder. “No leading Gareth astray,” he says without condescension. “Look, you’ve frightened the boy half to death.”

Gareth sheathes his own blade at that, and he doesn’t look frightened—his eyebrows lifted in incredulity more than shock, then lowering into a glower, his jaw clenching in that familiar mulishness. Gwaine grins.

“You’re in good spirits, my friend,” Lancelot says, drawing Gwaine’s attention back to him again, and the observation grooves Gwaine’s smile deeper. “Could I hazard a guess that you received a missive from Camelot?”

Gwaine lifts an eyebrow, and Lancelot dips his head a minuscule amount; a letter from Guinevere as well, then. “Walk with me,” Gwaine says, tilting his head in the direction of the gardens.

Lancelot nods, then looks back over Gwaine’s shoulder. “Gareth,” he calls.

They wait while Gareth runs about, putting the practice equipment away, and Gwaine frowns. “You shouldn’t exclude him,” Lancelot murmurs lowly, as if he can read Gwaine’s thoughts. “He’s only trying his best—he’s further from home than the rest of us, and it’s not just training he needs, but other involvement as well.”

Gwaine wonders if Lancelot’s letter was from Merlin after all.

“Besides,” Lancelot continues, voice dropping as Gareth finishes up. “Think of it this way: you’ve a noble to shape to your own notions. There’s no need to punish him for something he hasn’t even become yet.”

Gwaine huffs out a sigh of acknowledgement, and Lancelot claps him on the shoulder again. “Come, then,” Lancelot says, louder as Gareth joins them. “Tell me of your news.”

While Gwaine does agree with Lancelot on the value of keeping Gareth informed, he’s also inclined—for somewhat different reasons than Lancelot—toward discretion on the personal details. Consequently, their conversation is just as dense with the unspoken as with what they dare voice aloud.

It’s nearing twilight by the time they return indoors, via Lancelot’s chambers first; he responds to Gwaine’s begging with a begrudged, single sheet of parchment and borrowed quill.

Gareth seems in a better mood from their walk as well, and when Gwaine decides to sleep early rather than find a quiet corner to drink in, he’s there, sitting on the edge of his cot and running the whetstone over his own short sword. Gwaine’s chain mail is sprawled next to him, as if waiting its turn.

Gwaine feels a little ridiculous at having an audience as he wanders to stand by the open window. With his back to Gareth—the lowering sun still letting enough light in to read by—he takes out the letter again. Yours, Merlin.

“Did you leave behind a lover in Camelot?” Gareth asks, unprompted.

Gwaine turns to look at him and Gareth meets his impassive gaze only for a few moments before flushing, ducking his head down again. He puts his shoulders into the movement of the whetstone, and Gwaine tries not to smile.

“An admirer, then,” Gareth back-steps.

Gwaine chuckles. “I’m not one to kiss and tell,” he says with as much sincerity as he can muster, hand to his heart.

Gareth lifts his head again, giving him a sceptical look. “Lancelot told me,” he says shortly.

Gwaine’s smile falls away, and it’s with effort that he doesn’t crush the letter in his hands with the urge to clench his fists, sweat prickling on the back of his neck.

“Only that you left behind a paramour,” Gareth says, tone dipping uncertainly. “And that that’s why you were in such a foul mood all the way here.” He gives Gwaine a measuring look. “I just thought you were a bad-tempered drunkard.”

A laugh bursts out of Gwaine. “Then there’s hope for your powers of deduction yet,” he says, walking back to his bed, tousling Gareth’s hair roughly on his way past.

Gareth scowls at him. “Mind you, I’m not sure this mood is much better.”

“Easy, there,” Gwaine says without heat. “One of a knight’s greatest skills is to know when to fall back.” He glances over pointedly. “Especially before he’s given even more work to do.”

Gareth doesn’t speak again, though the silence isn’t a cold one, and the sound of him working lulls Gwaine to sleep as the sun sets.

◊   ◊   ◊

Dear Merlin,

Your concern for my wellbeing is truly heartening. Sadly, no giant pheasants have made their presence known since I have been here, nor have I seen the bottom of very many cups. I’m afraid the newly lorded Ector lost a small quantity of his wine stores on the journey here, so Kay keeps a keen eye on me now and I’m forbidden to visit the taverns in the lower town. I don’t know why he should be such a wet blanket about it. If I hadn’t been familiar with a tavern or two on our road, we’d have learned far less about the state of Escetia.

I’m not sure what kind of man he thinks I am. As you said, I have been taking perfect care of my squire—Gareth, his name is—and yet the boy returned from an afternoon with Kay having been questioned as to whether I’ve made any advances on him, of all things. Of course, Kay doesn’t know I’m spoken for—I’m sure he thinks me an absolute scoundrel, and the traitorous Lancelot has said nothing to dissuade him.

At any rate, whether I’m a scoundrel or not has little bearing on Gareth: Lancelot has found a receptive ear in him, as they can speak for hours on their beloved knight’s code. Though you will probably be pleased to learn that I am usually present for these conversations as well, so my own education in the bearing and manners of knighthood is also proceeding apace. Gareth meanwhile receives physical training from me, and while he's somewhat clumsy and quick to tire, I believe there’s a good fighter in him, one that will become more apparent as he builds up more strength and endurance.

Between you and me, the responsibility of it feels rather like raising a child, for all that he is generally capable of fending for himself, and much better doing as he’s told than I ever was. Though he has been developing a penchant for talking back—which, unlike your Prince, I find more entertaining than anything else.

And here I must end, as Lancelot was miserly enough to only give me a single sheet of parchment, and only then with the promise that I would pass on his regards also.

And of course, you have my fondest regards,
Sir Gwaine of Camelot

◊   ◊   ◊

Lancelot’s door is open when Gwaine arrives, and Gwaine gets his attention by tearing off a corner of bread and tossing it at the back of Lancelot’s head.

Lancelot turns and frowns, looking Gwaine up and down. “Where’s your wine, then?”

Gwaine strolls in and sits on the edge of Lancelot’s bed, tearing off another chunk of bread and stuffing it in his mouth. He tosses Lancelot the rest of the loaf, and pulls a similarly cloth-wrapped round of cheese from his pocket. “Brought food instead.”

Lancelot turns his chair around to face Gwaine. He has a room to himself, and though it’s a little smaller than the one Gwaine shares with Gareth, there is space enough for a small table.

Gwaine peers around him to look at it. “Where did you get such fine parchment? The seneschal wouldn’t give me any, I was thinking of going into the town tomorrow…”

He trails off as Lancelot stands and goes to the door, looks briefly either way into the hall, then closes and bars it before returning to his seat. “Where’s Gareth?” he asks, elbows resting on his knees as he hunches forward towards Gwaine, hands rubbing together nervously.

Gwaine lifts an eyebrow. “With Kay, who’s probably making sure I haven’t driven him to drink yet. I assume this isn’t something you want him to be involved in?”

Lancelot shakes his head a little. “The parchment is from Lady Bronwen,” he says.

Both of Gwaine’s eyebrows lift. “The courtesan?” Perhaps Lancelot has depths that he’s managed to keep utterly hidden. Gwaine feels a little put out that Lancelot’s been holding back on him. He smirks salaciously. “Lancelot, you must tell—”

“No, idiot,” Lancelot cuts him off, exasperated. “She’s Uther’s spy.”

Gwaine draws in a deep breath, leaning back. It makes… perfect sense, actually. Who better than a courtesan for extracting what goes on behind the closed doors of a court? He huffs out an impressed laugh. “Now that is a story I’d like to hear.”

Lancelot doesn’t seem to share his amusement, his smile small and guarded. “Good,” he says, “I’ll tell it to you. Bronwen was a lady of Camelot’s court, while Queen Ygraine still lived. She’s a magic user, apparently capable of nothing more extravagant than small charms and party tricks. Which was not uncommon in the court at that point, as I’m sure it is here, as well.” Lancelot presses his lips tightly in pause, still leaning forward, eyes fixed on Gwaine’s face. “When the King outlawed magic, the magic users of his court fled to protect themselves from execution.

“Bronwen made a bargain with Uther. Her family’s life would be spared—they would only be banished—if she sought sanctuary in the Escetian court and publicly avowed her hatred of Uther and of Camelot.”

“Which I’m sure the king wouldn’t have been able to turn away,” Gwaine observes; even before Cenred ascended the throne, Escetia was never an ally of Camelot’s.

Lancelot nods. “Especially if she were willing to occupy such a role in his court.”

“And her family?”

“Disappeared—although not by way of Uther’s dungeons. Many of Camelot’s subjects fled to live amongst the druids when the Great Purge began, or so Arthur told me.”

“Lucky few,” Gwaine laughs humourlessly, and has to stop when a thought occurs to him. “Wait, Arthur told you? How is she to be dealt with now Escetia is under Camelot’s rule?”

Lancelot searches Gwaine’s face for long moments. “I’ve been instructed to protect her,” he says at length, the corner of his mouth twitching up briefly as Gwaine wilts with visible relief. “The court has been volatile since Cenred’s death; magic or not, it takes great courage and fortitude to hold her position when so many others have fled. The courtesans are particularly vulnerable, with no king to favour them.”

“There’s been no ruling,” Gwaine says as he realises. “No declaration outlawing magic, here in Escetia.”

Lancelot nods. “Just the assumption. Which means no open subversion of Uther’s ruling.”

“But Ector—”

“—was Uther’s knight, yes. But he is, at heart, a practical man, who is open to a succeeding king’s way of thinking.”

They’re skirting close to treachery, which feels somehow more dangerous behind a judiciously closed door than when Gwaine was saying it to the Prince’s face.

“I never understood it, myself,” Gwaine confesses lowly, nonetheless. “To be honest, I rarely could bear spending time in Camelot before they brought me there.”

Lancelot softens, sharing a rueful smile. “It’s more treachery for me to say it than you—being a subject, born and raised—but I agree wholeheartedly.” He looks at his hands in silence for a moment. “Things will change,” he says with quiet conviction. He looks up again, his eyes intent on Gwaine’s. “I am glad we’re in agreement.”

Gwaine snorts. “Yes, well. I think you’d have to be mad to think otherwise. But, more importantly—just how much gossip did Gwen send you?”

Lancelot laughs. “This is not gossip that could be shared in a letter, my friend. Some of us spent our time in Camelot attending meetings and building trust, rather than mooning around after servants.”

His smirk is begging Gwaine to point out Lancelot’s hypocrisy, but he doesn’t have the heart to. At least Merlin was generally mooning back, whereas poor Guinevere… Well. Merlin had pinpointed it quite accurately, it seems: mourning Morgana, pining near and far.

“Speaking of which, you do have enough parchment to spare, don’t you?”

Lancelot throws a piece of bread at him. “No, as a matter of fact. Though I will come with you to buy some more tomorrow, if you promise to stop pestering me.”

Gwaine pouts, but feels secretly pleased at Lancelot’s irritation, as he does every time a chink in Lancelot’s noble armour shows. “Don’t expect me to send any of your regards, next time. I’ll just pass on what a horrible miser you are.”

Lancelot shakes his head, reaching over to snatch the cheese away from Gwaine. “I’m beginning to wish you’d brought that wine after all.”

◊   ◊   ◊

Dear Sir Gwaine of Camelot,

Has Sir Kay forbidden you to buy parchment as well as ale? I should like to forbid you your increasingly small writing, if you don’t mind. Surely an expedition to show off the handsome drape of your red cloak would not go astray. You do preen very well—I shall observe Gareth closely on your return to determine whether this is another aspect of physical training he has absorbed. I am glad he’s not letting you order him about without question, though I have to say that you are mistaken about Arthur—I firmly believe that he is greatly entertained by back-talk; he merely chooses to express his royal appreciation by throwing the nearest object at hand.

I must apologetically admit: it hardly surprises me that Lancelot hasn’t leapt to defend your virtue. Just how many barmaids did you sweet-talk along the way? Surely you did not divulge to them that you were spoken for. (Nor would I want you to deny yourself that, if you desire it. You should know that of course I would like to speak for you, but would be loath to talk over you, as it were.)

I am sure you have been something of a scoundrel your entire life, and it surprises me not a bit that you were an unruly child. I, however, was a paragon of good behaviour, much to my mother’s relief. As you know, she and I were alone as I grew up—I’m not sure she could have managed on her own if I was disinclined to do her bidding. Though you may note here that I am judiciously omitting the few years before I came of age, when I ran wild with Will. But the less said about chickens in chimneys, the better. I hope you at least had brothers and sisters to ease the strain on your poor mother?

As before, much of Camelot’s news deals with what occurs behind closed doors. Gaius is increasingly occupied with his patient, and I worry at the toll it’s taking on him. Gwen has moved into a room in the castle, so she is more available to alleviate the strain on him caused by other duties and patients, of which there are thankfully fewer and fewer: the last sufferers of Morgana’s rule have either returned to their homes or passed beyond this mortal realm entirely. I myself leave the citadel rarely. The last time involved riding out with Arthur and a few of the knights on a hunt, and ended on the wrong end of a cockatrice. I barely got him back in one piece, and I must say it has muted any enthusiasm I might have had for getting out in the countryside more. And that’s nothing to say of the oppressive heat—it’s much cooler in the castle than in the open sun, especially when you’re running about carrying game.

By the time this reaches you summer will be in full swing, though. Arthur keeps very tight-lipped about his missives from Ector, so I suspect the messenger route will continue to be varied and unpredictable.


◊   ◊   ◊

Dear Merlin,

I wish now I had waited a little longer to get more parchment of my own before sending my last letter, for you must know: I too think of you often—more often than not—and above anything else I desire to be by your side again. Do not concern yourself with talking over me; I would like you to speak for me, and loudly—though perhaps the particulars of that are best kept for when we can converse privately again.

You will be pleased to note that I am writing (at a consistent size) on parchment purchased with my own coin. Not quite as fine as that Lancelot managed to procure, but obtained honestly. As to your question of brothers and sisters: none made it beyond infanthood, much to my father’s disappointment—my mother always told me he wished for a sturdy collection of heirs. Unfortunately for him, he only ended up with me. I did, however, grow up in a household full of cousins, most of whom were well-beloved and consequently behaved impeccably to their elders.

Who is Will? And you cannot leave it at that—I must hear of the chickens and chimneys, even if you have to tell me in instalments. Not to mention cockatrices—how does that man manage to attract so much incidental danger? I do hope he’s learned his lesson and you manage to avoid any further incidents of near-death and sunburn.

Gareth has been taking great pleasure lately in dressing me in as many layers of armour and livery as possible before we ride out to visit the towns beyond the city. Though the drape of my cloak is very handsome (thank you for noticing), it is hellishly hot beneath it, and the locals appreciate the show not a whit. Although Ector has not re-stated Camelot’s ruling in Escetia’s court, Uther’s reputation precedes us, and we are greeted more with fear than welcome, except by those who see sycophancy as the best means of survival. I’m afraid I’m baffled that Uther could be considered worse than Cenred—but at least Cenred did not ruthlessly persecute magic users, of which there are many.

(It occurs to me that I have assumed that you do not share the Pendragon tendency to, well, behave as reputed, and will not hand over this letter as further evidence for Uther to have my head. And I hope that if any spies read this letter, they will take heart: we who occupy the seat of your kingdom hold no murderous intent.)

Speaking of Lancelot: I do hope you are taking care of Gwen as well. After each delivery of letters from Camelot, he seems increasingly withdrawn—I am learning it is his favoured technique for ‘acting nobly’. It’s damnably hard to tell if he’s doing it because he’s being rejected, or if it’s just the opposite, and he reacts because he feels drawn further into the tangle. He refuses to speak to me of any of it, but one unfortunate effect of his tall, dark broodiness is that Gareth has formed an attachment to him—which surely cannot end well. Gareth already thinks me somewhat of a fool, so I doubt whether my stepping in would do anything but firm up his affections, so to speak.

There now, I think I’ve shared all the pertinent details—I won’t bore you with all the matters of court here that I have no doubt Arthur is inundated with in each missive from Ector. And, knowing you, you’re probably reading it over his shoulder anyway. Though I should hope you will not allow him to read over yours.

Your devoted knight,

◊   ◊   ◊

When Gwaine makes it to the great hall, he’s just in time for Ector’s audience to have ended; he’d practically had to fight his way through the crowd to get here. The lords of the court are still in attendance—the faces the same as Gwaine had seen gathered there on their first day, with perhaps one or two new additions. There’s also another disgruntled-looking knight that Gwaine recognises from their recently-begun training sessions, pale-haired and pink about the eyes. Kay stands nearby looking nearly as annoyed. He hides it well, but Gwaine is now beyond familiar with reading that expression.

“Sir Gwaine,” Ector calls him, voice booming and tone authoritative. “Come forth.”

Gwaine approaches to stand a respectful distance away, albeit uneasily, recalling the multitude of times he’d been called to account in such settings in the past. “My Lord.”

“A petitioner has brought to Sir Kay’s attention that there are some alleged activities of disrepute occurring in the lower town, near the south wall.” Gwaine’s eyes dart to Kay quickly, the combination of Kay and disrepute making him instinctively feel guilty.

“You are to investigate the claims with Sir Andras, and report back to the court.”

Sir Andras does not appear to be cheered even the slightest by this news; if anything, his distasteful expression deepens.

“May we interview the petitioner, my Lord?” Gwaine asks, knowing from experience that a quiet drink shared over a tavern table is probably likely to yield more information than strutting about the town with swords at their belts will.

“The petitioner has chosen to remain anonymous,” Kay says, giving Gwaine a pointed look—ah. Gwaine shifts under the scrutiny of the silently assembled lords, and dips his head in assent.

Andras proves to be as sullen-tempered as he appeared in the great hall. As disdainful as he is while silent, when he speaks he’s practically derisive. If Gwaine were the pedantic, noble type, he’d say Andras’ stiffly-delivered comments border on treachery: his criticisms of Ector’s orders—and by proxy, Gwaine himself—are as thinly veiled as they come.

Gwaine enjoys riling him by remaining serenely unmoved as they walk to the town, keeping up his side of the small talk with noncommittal niceties, though he does envy Gareth for being entirely ignored.

As they reach the lower town, the ground turns from smooth paving to gritty bedrock, and while there are more people moving about, none of them meet Gwaine’s eyes. Realising that they’re not any more friendly to Andras is not exactly reassuring. For all that Gwaine had come to accept a degree of animosity when he was on patrol with Lancelot, he’d been assuming that an Escetian knight would be acknowledged with a little more warmth.

It makes Gwaine focus more keenly not only on how the townspeople respond to them, but how Andras responds to the townspeople.

“There were many petitioners this morning,” Gwaine comments, projecting nonchalance. “Did Cenred used to receive so many?”

“There was rarely need for King Cenred to hold an audience; he did so only monthly,” Andras says shortly.

“I suppose with the kingdom’s population so depleted, there is more need for subjects to seek assistance from the crown.”

Andras sniffs. “There are surely enough to work the land as they’ve always done. If anything, there are now fewer mouths to feed. Taxes ought to be raised to take the excess into account.”

Gwaine’s eyebrow lifts, unable to remain blasé about that particular opinion. “Really.”

“There is much of the kingdom that needs to be reconsolidated,” Andras continues. “The royal treasury was greatly diminished by the King’s war effort.”

“I’m not much one for politics myself,” Gwaine returns, “but surely you’re not suggesting that the widows left to run your lands are better off for Cenred’s follies?”

“No, I don’t suppose you are.” Andras turns his disdain to Gwaine directly. “I wouldn’t expect you to comprehend such a thing.” He ends the conversation by walking on.

There’s something to his dismissal that leaves Gwaine uneasy—not that he hasn’t adapted, long ago, to the scorn that comes from those who thinks he’s lesser for not being noble-born.

But Andras shouldn’t know that his knighthood was not gained by birth. Ector certainly wouldn’t have divulged it, nor Kay or Lancelot, and the soldiers brought from Camelot were chosen for their loyalty; surely there would be no loose lips in that quarter either.

“You there!” Andras calls ahead, and Gwaine sighs as the woman in Andras’ sights freezes and bows her head.

“Sir.” Gwaine turns to find Gareth at his elbow. “Shall I see if I can find someone to talk to?”

Though Gwaine and Andras are in full plumage—Camelot red clashing with Andras’ maroon cloak—Gareth doesn’t have any livery, having left Camelot at too short notice. Gwaine suspects that at the rate Gareth is growing he’d need a new kit by the time they return home anyway. In the meantime, Gareth’s plain clothing and youthful looks mean he can easily blend in with the packs of children that roam about the lower town.

Gwaine nods. “I’ll keep this one occupied.” He cocks his head in Andras’ direction. “Come back if you find anything. Although—” He lowers his voice further. “—You need not share everything you discover with both of us.” He gives Gareth an expectant look, patting him briefly on the shoulder when the boy’s expression demonstrates his understanding. Then Gareth wanders off and away, slipping between the salt-scoured walls of the buildings.

Unsurprisingly, Andras’ tactics yield few results, and Kay’s informant had been frustratingly unspecific. The south wall is a long, curved stretch with a chaotic clutter of structures built within its scoop. With the tide in, the sea sounds dangerously close, waves crunching against the cliff face and receding with a hiss, and the sounds catch and seethe in the hundreds of angles and hidey-holes formed by the precarious construction of the buildings. The brittle wood, mouldering thatch and taut sailcloth creak, rustle and snap, adding to the sinister chorus.

Gwaine suspects that were the town in better repair, it wouldn’t sound so much as if the entire section of it was about to come loose and blow away. It’s hard to tell if the houses have been abandoned, or if there are residents, and they’ve just retreated before Gwaine and Andras’ approach. Gwaine is more inclined to think the latter; he’s never been in a city where there aren’t people homeless and destitute; surely the houses wouldn’t have been left entirely empty.

Andras breaks their silence by muttering, “What a miserable place,” with considerable distaste.

“Indeed,” Gwaine says drily, “one that would undoubtedly be improved by increased taxes.”

He can almost feel Andras’ glower at his back.

“This town flourished under King Cenred’s rule,” Andras grits. “The entire kingdom reaped the rewards of what he wrought.”

Before Gwaine can respond to that statement with a biting observation or two of his own, Gareth appears, emerging abruptly from behind a ragged curtain of hessian at the corner of Gwaine’s eye. Gwaine reels back, and suppresses the urge to curse at Gareth for startling him, mindful of their company.

Gareth’s mouth twitches as if Gwaine’s attempt at good behaviour amuses him greatly. “Sir,” he says, then ducks behind the curtain again. When he reappears, he’s hauling another boy by the wrist. “This lad reckons he’s seen a thing or two.”

The boy is smaller than Gareth, wrist twiggy in Gareth’s grip for all that his weather-beaten look makes him seem as resilient as a bit of driftwood. He’s sunburnt over his nose, skin chapped and hair tousled into stiff tufts from the salty air. Next to the rags he’s wearing, Gareth’s clothes look fit for a prince, and yet he bears it all with a kind of obstinate dignity that Gwaine can’t help but admire.

“What is your name, child?” Andras commands, striding to where they stand.

Gareth’s eyes dart to Gwaine’s in subtle alarm, but his concern is unfounded: the boy remains silent as he scowls up at them.

“He needn’t share that,” Gwaine reassures, crouching down. “He can tell us what he likes and then go on his way. Right, Sir Andras?”

Gwaine looks up at the other knight pointedly until Andras gives a single, stiff nod.

Gareth moves his grip to the boy’s shoulder instead, jostling him a little in encouragement. When he still doesn’t speak, Gareth clears his throat. Gwaine glances up at him, and Gareth lifts an eyebrow, subtly rubbing the pads of his thumb and fingers together.

Gwaine huffs, shouldering back his cloak back to dig into the pouch at his belt. He flicks up a single coin with his thumb; the boy snatches it out of the air like a greedy seagull. Andras makes an indignant noise.

“Never mind Sir Andras,” Gwaine says, keeping his eyes on the boy’s as he speaks, low and confiding, “he doesn’t like to be reminded that everyone can do as they please.”

The boy’s scowl eases a little, shrewdness edging into his gaze as he considers Gwaine.

“Can you tell me what you’ve seen?” Gwaine prompts.

The boy’s eyes flit to Gwaine’s coin pouch briefly, so Gwaine tosses him another.

“There’s a hole in the wall,” the boy says, the coin tucked away and out of sight immediately, just like the first.


He points, and when he turns back to Gwaine he seems expectant of more questions.

“Have you seen people using it?”

The boy nods. “At high tide. There are men at night.”

“Can you see what they’re doing?”

The boy shakes his head this time, and though he grabs at the coin eagerly when Gwaine holds it up, his answer is still negative when Gwaine asks again.

“Very well,” Gwaine says, rising to his feet. Before he’s even made it to standing, the boy has shrugged out of Gareth’s hold and run off out of sight.

Gwaine turns to Andras, meeting his displeased look with one of sanguine challenge. Andras turns and stalks towards the wall.

With the boy’s directions far from specific, they make their way painstakingly along the broad stretch of wall indicated by his gesture. While the wall is largely sheer stone cut into the bedrock, there are clusters of debris at occasional points along it, and it’s at one particular heap of broken wood and rubble that Gwaine picks up more signs of traffic that he’d seen elsewhere. It’s clear that for all that the clutter of it appears incidental, the refuse has been moved recently.

He begins to move it away from the wall, piece by piece, trying to follow the same method he can half-read in their placement. Andras begins to help, and Gareth too—scrambling around more easily than Gwaine feels able to, quickly overheating beneath his layers of cloak and mail. His hair is damp with sweat by the time they uncover the hole; it’s low to the ground and only big enough for a man to get through if he’s crawling.

Andras moves forward and crouches to peer through it, and Gwaine takes the opportunity to look back over his shoulder at the impassive audience of dilapidated houses. There’s no way their activity has gone unnoticed, but he feels more pleased about that than anything. While ‘disreputable activities’ had suggested sordid possibilities, this looks nothing more sinister than a way to get in and out of the city, unregulated and undetected. Better then to indirectly warn the perpetrators, than persecute them for something so harmless.

“I’ll go through,” Gareth declares, picking his way through the hardly-cleared path to get closer to the opening, edging in in front of Andras.

“Careful,” Gwaine says sharply before Gareth can duck through; for it is high tide and that’s the part he can’t figure out—surely sneaking in and out of the citadel would be far easier at low tide, with the spit tethering the rock to the mainland widening enough for travellers to go unnoticed upon it. He knows what the citadel looks like from the outside: rising, dankly austere, from a striated cliff face. Falling from the edge of it would surely not yield a happy outcome.

“It’s all right,” Gareth calls out, his high voice half-whipped away by the wind against the cliff as he sticks his head out to look. “There’s room enough to walk.”

Andras follows first, and then Gwaine, unsure if he feels more precarious on the edge or more safe, weighed down with mail and gear as he is. The precipice is not as severe as he’d anticipated, though. The water is closer than he would have thought; the surface is a safe jump away, and there are some knotted, tenacious plants growing out of the rock. Gareth is leaning alarmingly forward, not even touching the wall for balance. “There are steps over here!” he shouts excitedly.

Andras strides forward, pre-empting Gwaine by grabbing Gareth’s arm and hauling him back from the edge. Then he crouches, getting a more stable vantage point to peer down, cloak billowing in the gusty wind coming off the sea.

After a moment, he rises again and walks back to Gwaine. “Smugglers,” he says shortly, his tone grim. “The nerve of them, in the royal seat no less—”

Gwaine jerks his head back toward the wall, his own mouth set in a tense line.

It all makes perfect sense, of course—and absolutely ironic sense, given what Andras had been adamantly declaring for half the afternoon—but he’s not surprised by Andras’ dark silence as they head back towards the castle. “I suppose that people who are perfectly happy with the just commerce and taxation of their kingdom would have no reason to engage in such a disreputable activity,” Gwaine muses aloud.

“I’d not make the mistake of ascribing such low-born people any hint of integrity,” Andras returns acidly.

Sobered by the pointedness of Andras’ tone, Gwaine finds himself meeting Gareth’s similarly troubled gaze, falling into step with him as Andras strides ahead.

◊   ◊   ◊

Dear Devoted Dolt,

Of course I don’t let Arthur read over my shoulder—he mocks me enough as it is, I’m hardly about to let him catch me poring over my keepsakes. (Not that Arthur isn't hearing about your deeds in great detail already, with letters from Lancelot as well as Ector.) I will take you up on the offer to speak loudly of you when next we two find a moment alone, though—I’m sure you could make me say anything you wish.

And your assumptions are correct—I could never think badly of you, anyway. It saddens me to think of the people of Escetia suffering further through fear, especially when all Arthur really wants is to bring them under his protection. We live in a troublesome state—though Uther is King in no more than name, his ruling still holds firm as ever. I fear that Morgana undertaking her coup with the aid of magic only served to convince the people of Camelot that Uther’s law is merited.

And for those in Camelot who are magic users... it is more than just fear they suffer through. A boy was caught using magic in the lower town last week, for nothing more than keeping his horse from snapping its leg in a ditch. Arthur was forced to imprison him, indefinitely awaiting execution—to contradict the King’s law while he’s still living would subvert Arthur’s own integrity. And I am not sure that Arthur isn’t entirely convinced that his father’s law is unjust—only that he feels, like the rest of us, that there has been enough death.

But on to lighter matters. You asked about Will. I grew up with him in Ealdor. On reflection he was not unlike you—the son of a knight, disillusioned by his father’s death. But not so disillusioned that he couldn’t goad me into a monstrous amount of trouble. The incident with the chicken is not one that requires instalments to tell—I will say only that the bird in question was a test subject for our dream of fitting ourselves through the chimney, the trial run of which coincided with my mother arriving home and beginning to lay the fire. Needless to say, it was some time before we ate eggs again.

I was never one for numerous friendships either, so Will and I were very fast friends to the exclusion of others, though I sometimes longed for a household of playmates. Growing up with cousins sounds ideal, though you do not seem to paint it that way. How did you end up living with—your mother’s family, I assume? And I’m deducing that you did not part on amicable terms, or is your fondness for roaming purely that, and not born of a lack of home? I apologise if this is too forward a question—do not mention it in your reply if you don’t wish to answer, and I’ll not speak of it again.

I am intrigued by Gareth’s fixation on Lancelot, though I cannot help but take the news with an equal measure of dread. Perhaps Lancelot is the sort doomed to leave a trail of broken hearts behind him, and we just haven’t realised yet? You may have to subdue him, for all our sakes. I am sure you cannot be right in thinking that Gareth thinks you a fool, though—would he be so inclined to learn swordsmanship from a fool? Perhaps you should try to advise him on matters of the heart, now that you’ve managed to get your own sorted.

And speaking of those pining after certain knights: I have passed on your regard to Gwen, who seemed quietly appreciative. She managed to drag me out into the sun to gather herbs for Gaius, which it seems I’ve not done in an age, and the state of things here means it’s not entirely safe for Gwen to leave the city on her own. She also managed to drag Arthur out—he did not appreciate your regard so much, but it did provide opportunity for more of his possessive bluster, which charmed Gwen sufficiently. All in all, it was lovely to spend some quiet moments with them. Though it made me miss you all the more—odd, isn’t it, that I feel your absence more in the happier moments? The summer was so rich around, and those two so hearteningly besotted with each other, that my chest just filled up with want for you.

But I’m getting away from myself. You should share some of the matters of court—I’m certain you could shape them into stories that would have little political value, but be greatly entertaining nonetheless.


◊   ◊   ◊

“We need to get out of the citadel,” Gwaine declares. “It’s our morning off, and Kay has approved us riding out.”

Lancelot closes his book. “You seem rather sure of yourself.”

Gareth turns away from Lancelot’s table, where he’s practising forming letters on a wax plate, to face them.

“It’s too hot, and the gardens are full of nobles. I want to be in the forest again.” Gwaine drops down on the bed next to Lancelot. “Don’t you miss trees?

“There’s a stream that runs through the forest,” Gareth blurts, and Gwaine looks to him curiously. Gareth’s eyes flit between him and Lancelot. “With a spot good for swimming. I heard from the stablehands.” He closes his mouth abruptly, looking down and away from Lancelot, a flush rising in his cheeks.

“That sounds just the thing,” says Lancelot, oblivious. “Do you know how to swim?”

Gareth shakes his head, face still turned down, and Gwaine resists the urge to lean in and hide a smile against Lancelot’s shoulder. There’s provocative, and then there’s downright cruel, and Gwaine remembers what it felt to be a young man overwhelmed with a fixation on someone. Especially as it feels sometimes like no time has passed at all.

“We have until the mid-afternoon bell,” Gwaine says.

“Can you prepare the horses?”

“Yes, Sir.” Gareth is up and out the door before Gwaine can say a word.

Lancelot sighs, standing, and lifts his sword belt from its hook by the door. “What?” he says when he turns to see Gwaine still lounging on the bed, one ankle crossed over the other, a smirk broad on his face.

“He is still my squire, you know. Even if he’d follow any order you gave him.”

Lancelot looks uncomfortable. “It’s unsurprising for someone so young and so far away from home to form attachments to those nearby and familiar.”

“Yes, I’m sure he’d quite like to be attached,” Gwaine drawls.

“Stop it.” Lancelot taps Gwaine’s shins—not gently—with the flat of his scabbard. Softer, he says, “I’ll talk to him.”

“Try not to mortify him, will you?” Gwaine jumps to his feet.

“I’m not you. I can actually handle delicate situations.”


“Come on, let’s get out into the trees, then.”

Even without his heavy cloak and mail, the last strains of summer heat have Gwaine sweating into his clothes, and he gives an audible sigh of relief when they reach the tree line. They follow the flow of the stream to where it widens, the current continuing around the shallow, sandy edge of the bank, and darker water swirling slowly into a deep pool. An ancient willow drapes on the shoreline, arching enormous roots from the bank into the water, slender leaves drifting idly.

Despite evidence of the spot’s popularity, there’s no one else around, and Gwaine’s already getting undressed as soon as he manages to peel himself out of the saddle. He leaves the horse to Gareth’s capable care without a backward glance, shucking his clothes into a pile a little further than splashing distance from the water. It’s bracingly cold when he first steps into it, icier than the refreshing breeze of summer air cooling his sweaty skin, and he grasps an upraised willow root—wood smooth and polished from no doubt years of swimmers doing the same—as he feels for the depth with his feet.

Then he’s lurching forward into the water, the chill of it clapping onto his skin and enfolding him entirely. A shout bursts out of him when he bobs back to the surface, the lingering shock of the cold wringing out startled huffs of laughter as he treads water. Lancelot looks on in amusement, half-undressed.

Gwaine pauses a moment to admire the cut of Lancelot’s chest, perfect angles messily covered with swirls of dark hair. “Get on with it, then,” Gwaine shouts, and ducks his mouth below the water to grin as Lancelot rolls his eyes and strips his trousers off, uncovering the equally delightful sculpt and pelt of his long, muscular thighs, cock hanging dark and soft between. The muscles bunch and tense as Lancelot takes his first testing step into the water, and Gwaine dives back under the surface to emerge closer with an almighty splash.

“Oh, you do not want to challenge me,” Lancelot says dangerously once he’s bitten off his yelp of surprise, and then for long minutes it’s all breathless laughter and slippery limbs, Gwaine trying to shove and keep Lancelot’s head under the water and his own head above, coughing and spluttering every other second when he fails and water goes in where it oughtn’t.

Eventually they tire, Lancelot floating on his back, stroking hands through the water every so often to stop himself from being carried downstream. Gwaine treads water with the minimal effort required, keeping just his eyes and nose above the surface. Now that all the splashing and challenging is over, Gwaine realises that Gareth is still on dry land—and completely dressed, at that. The boy sits with his knees drawn up against his chest, arms folded atop them and cradling his chin.

“Come on, then, it’s not that deep—we can teach you to swim,” Gwaine calls.

Gareth’s eyes snap away from Lancelot’s drifting figure, and he lifts his head to look at Gwaine. The set of his jaw is firm and his eyes are wide and glazed, not unlike the first few times they rode into unknown territory and assured peril. “No, thank you,” he says stiffly.

“It really isn’t that bad once you get the hang of it,” Gwaine says easily, paddling his hands to bring him higher in the water and closer to the shallows.

Gareth stands abruptly and backs away. “I’d really rather not,” he says, voice rising, and Gwaine shrugs, sinking back again.

“Suit yourself.”

He makes a point of disregarding Gareth after that—not drawing attention to someone overcome by their childhood fear is a kindness he knows from experience—and after a while, he doesn’t even have to try. Eyes closed, Gwaine focuses on the water’s smooth caress and shifting temperature against his entire body as the stream’s current flows through the pool. It occurs to him that it’s been far too long since he’s been naked for any length of time—yet the idleness of his thoughts is eclipsed by the sudden swell of the feeling that follows it: he misses Merlin.

The feeling itself is not new, and when Merlin had mentioned similar thoughts in his letter Gwaine had felt pleased. But this, this sense of longing is amplified by his own sense of calmness and bliss, expanding in his throat and making his chest ache until he can hardly stand it. His enjoyment of the water is suddenly almost too poignant to bear—he wants to get up and out and march all the way back to Camelot until the feeling stops.

Instead Gwaine closes his eyes and forces himself to stay through it, and with the water touching and holding him so thoroughly, it’s easier to let his thoughts flow onward as well. To imagine Merlin there, Merlin’s limbs wrapping around him, longer and lither than Lancelot’s, and gentler. And then nothing else would matter and they could sink below the surface without need for air, the rest of the world muted out and distant above; they could settle on the soft, silty bottom and stay there forever.

Gwaine’s drawn out of the sweetly morbid fantasy when he hears the sound of voices, garbled and muffled through the water. When he lifts his head and peers to the bank, the sound becomes harshly clear, and the view unexpected. Gareth is on his feet, back to the water, bowing and shuffling before four brightly-dressed ladies, and Gwaine quickly realises: it’s the courtesans, led by Lady Bronwen.

“Sir Lancelot,” she says, looking toward the water, and even if they couldn’t see the slight curl of her smirk, the amusement is obvious in the rich timbre of her voice. “Sir Gwaine. How unexpected.”

Her tone gives the impression that she rather had expected them, and Gwaine chuckles lowly in appreciation of her candour—it’s more than most members of the court are prepared to offer.

“My ladies,” he calls out from the water. “You must forgive our immodesty. If we’d known women of such high calibre would grace us with their presence...”

“All will be forgiven, Sir Gwaine,” Lady Bronwen says, tilting her chin up regally, “should you come here and kiss my hand in apology, without delay.”

The other women laugh, their faces flushed from the summer heat and round with their grins, their fans rocking to push a breeze across their skin rather than cover it from view.

Gwaine grins wolfishly and kicks towards the bank. As instructed, without delay he strides up into the shallows—legs stretching pleasantly after not having to hold his weight for so long—and forward to take the lady’s hand.

Bronwen doesn’t hide the lingering look up-and-down she gives him, and her eyes gleam with shared amusement when she meets his gaze; he doesn’t break it as he lifts her hand and lowers his lips to it.

Behind him, Lancelot clears his throat when Gwaine straightens, his voice only slightly stilted as he says, “Would that my view were so pleasant…” which, naturally, garners another round of laughter.

“Would you object if we joined you, then?” Bronwen asks, and one-handed she unfastens the clasp of the diaphanous shawl covering her bare shoulders; it slithers slowly away.

“I am sorry, my Lady,” Lancelot says, more politeness and less jest, this time. Gwaine turns to watch him emerge from the stream—face pinked despite the coolness of the water, and his hands cupped between his legs. “We can remain nearby, to provide guard while you bathe, but will leave you to your privacy.”

“Surely you do not need to be so far,” she says, just as polite. Her invitation is not as salacious as many Gwaine has received—certainly no more than Gwaine’s was to Lancelot and Gareth to join him this morning. It strikes a chord of kinship within him: this woman is far from home as well, making do as best she can, and largely succeeding with her unconventional tactics.

Lancelot bows his head, somehow managing to appear entirely proper despite being naked. “It would be for the best.”

“Another time, perhaps,” Gwaine allows, unable to keep a note of apology out of the polite refusal when Bronwen looks in question to him, and her smile holds a little regret, but also understanding.

“Ah, how noble the knights of Camelot…” she says wistfully, and begins to unpin the dark, coiled braids of her hair.

Gwaine takes it as their cue to do as they say, and he scoops up his clothes and follows Lancelot towards the horses, fairly certain he’s not imagining the light smack of a fan on his rear as he passes the women. His suspicions are confirmed when he casts a coy look over his shoulder, getting another round of giggles in return.

They pointedly face the other direction as the sounds of splashing and shrieks of delight rise from behind them; even Gareth hunches close to one of the horses, checking the saddle straps with intense concentration. Gwaine can’t help but prolong his nakedness for as long as possible, peeling away the few long, yellow licks of willow leaves from where they’ve clung to his legs as he’s left the water, and trying to ignore the increasing chill of air on his wet skin. It would be different if he were lounging in the sun—he could dry off a lot quicker—and he casts a glance back over his shoulder.

“Do you want to?” Lancelot asks him softly, noticing his look. When he meets Gwaine’s eyes his expression is frank and nonjudgmental, and Gwaine’s almost disappointed that he can’t find his answer there.

He thinks of sinking below the water with Merlin wrapped around him; sweet, airless bliss. He almost can’t breathe just imagining it, and it’s exhilarating. He shrugs and pulls his trousers on, heaving them up against the friction of his wet skin. “Perhaps another time,” he repeats.

◊   ◊   ◊

My dear Merlin,

Your most recent letter has occupied my thoughts without pause since I first read it. I feel selfishly pleased to know that you miss me so, but my own longing serves to take me down a peg—at times I do feel I am truly suffering through our separation. My own heart fills up with wanting, as do other parts of me too—and thinking of you both eases and antagonises the ache. Were our communication a little less likely to be read by others, I would share some of the ways I’ve imagined demonstrating how much I’ve missed you. Perhaps you could imagine some too, and we can compare notes when next we meet.

You asked for tales of the court—well, I have one that concerns politics, but it is a case of the court coming to us, I'm afraid. You'll remember I told you of Gareth’s burgeoning interest in Lancelot. Well, I finally forced Lancelot to acknowledge the attention and address the boy directly. While Gareth responded with neither anger nor floods of tears, he was certainly skulking around miserably with his tail between his legs for some days afterwards, and could barely look Lancelot in the eye. Consequently, he has been spending more time with me—which I can't help but think is proper, as he is my squire after all—but I'm afraid I've yet to offer him any advice. Despite what you say about me being ‘sorted’, I’m not so sure that I’m qualified for such a discussion, considering the near-inept standard of my own courting.

But, I can practically see you rolling your eyes and telling me to get to the point. How does this scenario in any way involve politics? Well, because Ector and the lords of the court have agreed that Camelot’s knights should take young Escetian nobles as squires. The strategy seems fair, given that one of Ector’s first rulings was to send all the precious noble sons to the kingdom’s outlying towns, to provide long-deserved protection from the scavengers on the borders. But the result is as you suspect: Lancelot has gained a squire, and I don't know if it’s because of jealousy or the fact that the boy is, quite frankly, a spoilt little snot (see, Lancelot's lessons in gentle language have been paying off for me), but he and Gareth have been fighting like dogs virtually since the moment he was assigned. A day doesn't pass that we don't have to haul them apart by the scruffs of their necks, and even Lancelot’s patience is wearing thin. Though that could be partly my fault—on occasion I do use the opportunity to give Gareth pointers on how to take down an opponent using only his fists. I am convinced the animosity will not last very long, though. Brattish as he is, Erin’s anger and sullenness are not so misplaced—he was orphaned by this war, and he now faces a future in the land that caused his father’s death (or so he believes). His situation is not so different from Gareth’s, and their similar ages makes him a far more suitable companion for Gareth than Lancelot or I.

Which brings me to your next question quite neatly. You are correct—I did not leave my uncle’s house amicably. It is not a topic I tend to share freely, but while it brings me no gladness to recall, I am glad to share things of my past with you, and hope deeply that upon learning more of me, you will not find me wanting.

My mother was from the Western Isles, and once my father died, she returned to her family there. Just as she had been unwelcome in Caerleon, so too was I in her brother’s house, though not as overtly. I was only a child, but old enough to have imprinted a bearing and manner of speaking that was foreign to the children around me, and while I quickly adjusted to better fit in, the matter remained: I was not of their land. Or of their family—they never accepted my mother’s marriage, and my existence was perpetual evidence of it.

The few tales my mother told me of my father left me baffled as to why she still wished so strongly to fulfil what he had asked of her, for he was not a kind man. Above all else he wanted heirs to carry on his legacy, and she strove to instill in me the desire to fulfil the promise of my noble blood, even as my cousins’ scorn—and uncle’s disregard—convinced me I never could, should I ever even want to. After she died, I could not stay in that place—I had no reason to, after all. Upon discovering I no more belonged in Caerleon, I took up my habit of seeking excellent taverns and dangerous quests throughout the land, and have not travelled across the sea since.

So there you have it. I am a little sad I could not provide you with a tale of hijinks—which I am convinced you have more of, and that perhaps you are not so keen to share. I am curious, though, if you will forgive the question—you said you met your father briefly before he died, and that he had been banished. Yet also that you and your mother are not of Camelot. Was your father banished to Camelot, and this is why you only met him recently? Did your mother part with him on unfriendly terms, and that's why you did not join him from the beginning?

Please do pass on my regards to the ridiculously besotted pair you seem to be spending most of your time with, and I hope you continue to think of me just as fondly, if with less bluster.

I remain your devoted dolt,

◊   ◊   ◊

Dearest Gwaine,

I’m not sure you’re aware of how difficult it is to read your letters. I’m unable to even open them at least until I’ve returned to my room and made sure Gaius is absent, because your words make me want to run from here to Escetia without pause, just to laugh with you, and touch you, and, more than anything, kiss you. I’m not sure you’re aware of just how long it takes me to read your letters.

And I do not think you’re being entirely fair on yourself—after all, it isn’t your fault that it took me such a long time to recognise your courting for what it was. I am merely speaking plainly when I say it is my lot in life to stand invisible behind Arthur. I am not resentful of this; he will be a great king, but that’s just the thing: you swore your fealty to Arthur, as it should be. And so it took me a considerable amount of time (and extreme measures—don’t think I’ve forgotten that picnic) to realise that your attention was also upon me.

But you must forgive my introspection. I am truly sorry to hear of your mother’s death, and the trials you both experienced after your father’s. I had assumed that he was a man whose example you sought to emulate. I see now the truth of the matter, and many of the principles you hold so passionately become more clear to me. For what it’s worth, it seems you are carrying on the legacy of your family—remaining true, as your mother did, to your chosen principles and above all, enduring. I admire you a great deal for it.

My own father was not banished to but from Camelot. As you may have surmised, given my age, my mother and he parted ways during the Great Purge. My father was not a magic user, but his profession was irrevocably tied with the tenets of sorcery. My parents both fled the kingdom, but being formerly in the employ of King Uther, my father was pursued. My mother settled in Ealdor to bear and raise me; my father, condemned to his fate as a fugitive, was never able to join us. I knew nothing of this growing up, and I feel filled with remorse to say now that I had interpreted her reticence to speak of him as shame in my origins.

As to how I met him… in recent years it became apparent that he would be of use to the King again; Arthur and I rode out to find him, and it was only shortly before we set out that Gaius told me the truth of my relationship to the man we were seeking. He was killed in a fight on our way back to Camelot. No one but Gaius knows the truth of this—not even Arthur, or Gwen. I implore you to not speak of it to anyone else; I fear the history of my family as enemies of Uther will force me from Arthur’s side, be it by imprisonment, banishment or worse. I am certain I can trust you with this, but you must forgive me for asking it of you anyway, if nothing but to set my mind at ease. I have told no one else.

Perhaps I am being overly cautious, but you’ll recall the boy I told you of being imprisoned some time ago—well, Arthur has been relieved of the onus of executing him. The lords who continue to share Uther’s views on magic held Arthur’s reticence up as evidence in the accusation that Arthur is subverting his father’s rule. Though they did not present it in such bald terms, of course—no, they are far too skilled in hypocrisy, accusing others of ignobility just as easily as they excuse themselves. Needless to say, Arthur was backed into a corner—Uther could never suffer magic users to live for longer than a handful of days, once captured—and a pyre was laid in the square. Shortly thereafter the boy himself managed to escape without a trace, thank god. But this is not over, I fear. There is unrest stirring, and I worry for Arthur, should he be forced into such a situation again. Until he’s crowned, I cannot see him having any other choice but to condone such punishments.

I am greatly entertained by your tales of Erin and Gareth, which I’m sure you wickedly intended. Though, even knowing the state of unrest in Escetia, I suppose I did ask to be entertained. I do hope that by the time this reaches you, they will have made amends and become friends. I also hope that as you read this, you’ve not felt the colder strains of autumn just yet. Gwen arranged the making of the enclosed winter cloaks for you and Lancelot. You should also find a few more bits and pieces enclosed, if the messenger hasn’t ‘lost’ them on the way—the sweetmeats are direct from the royal kitchens, and Geoffrey tells me the writing set is one of the best money can buy (that is from me—the cloak and gloves are part of Arthur’s determination to deck you all out as finely as holly boughs).

I fear that the coming winter will hinder the passage between our two cities, and we shall not have the luxury of sharing such frequent missives. Perhaps this is good fortune in disguise, for I think I could spend all my waking hours filling books with words for you, and send a whole cart of them for you to read while I wait for your responses—all the while neglecting my duties, of course.

But—I oughtn’t tell you this, and yet, and yet…

Arthur is speaking in a very veiled manner of what might happen after winter, should the establishment of his rule in Escetia proceed as hoped and prove successful. Ector’s wife and sons will be sent over, and more knights to relieve the duty of some already there. It is best you keep this from the others; I have no wish to disrupt the flow of Arthur’s command, but perhaps you can think of this to keep you warm on the coming winter nights, as I will.


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Merlin, Merlin—

I write this quickly, now, as you’ve set the fear of snow upon me and I am anxious that my response will not reach you soon enough. But any amount of time feels too long, now that I think of you reading this alone in your room, thinking of me, imagining me there. The writing set is beautiful. As I sit here and write, I stroke the glossy black feather against my fingers and imagine your hair; I stroke it against my lips and imagine your kiss. I’m not sure how I’ll keep the quill unsullied, except by reminding myself that you have touched it before me.

Perhaps I’m too effusive, but you’ve set me alight. I don’t want to write pages about Lancelot or the happenings of court, I want to write words that make you shut yourself away, unsuitable for company; or make you trek across the kingdom to make me fulfil them. I can barely sleep for thinking of things I want to say and do to you, and it’s probably for the best that Gareth has taken to sleeping in the garrison on occasion, for if I’m not lighting a candle to pore over parchment, I’m pushing away the bedclothes to imagine your touch on me instead.

It feels as if you have been kissing me slowly senseless for months. There are so many things I want to do to you. Shall I list them? Perhaps you could carry out my wishes, and tell me how it felt in your next letter, and it will be a little like I am there, only a month or two distance between us. Or perhaps I’ll not make a list, but describe this to you: I come home, unexpected. In your room you’re sitting at your desk writing a letter to me. I creep behind you, and you’re not wearing your scarf because it’s still in my pocket, so I draw the feather of this quill along the side of your bare neck. You gasp, and arch toward me, and I follow the touch with my mouth. You taste so good, I can tell how much you want me just from flavour of your skin on my tongue.

Are you touching yourself now? Your own quill on your throat? You may imagine my mouth on you, anywhere you wish, and you can hold me to that when I come back to you. You may hold me to anything you want. Where do you wish the story to go? I have imagined taking you to your bed, or simply kneeling before you as you remain in your chair, or kneeling as soon as you stand to greet me (I stroke the quill feather against my lips now). I remember how you taste, and how you felt in my arms, those last few moments we had in the stables. Sometimes I imagine what might have happened if you hadn’t stopped me, if we’d had more time, your body eager and willing against mine, pressed against the wall behind you.

Send me your cart of letters. Send for me and I’ll come home to you. Now that I know, I don’t know that I can wait until the end of winter.


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Part Four