hope: Art of a woman writing from tour poster (merlin - gwaine & merlin)
puddingsmith ([personal profile] hope) wrote2011-06-06 09:43 pm

Along a Wandering Wind (5/6)

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

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Part Five

It’s not until nearly spring that the roads open again, ice and snow turning to slush. Without the hang of fog in the air, the view of the countryside beyond the castle becomes crisp and clear again: as the snow melts, the land gradually turns a muddy brown, with just the occasional highlight of white remaining.

As well as the re-opening of communication routes, within a week or two the kingdom’s commerce picks up again as merchants are now also free to travel between towns. After going half-mad from being shut up in the citadel, it seems that the entire city is out in the marketplace, flocking to the new visitors, who exchange news and goods from places near and far that have been equally isolated by the snow. The marketplace thrives with more people and variety than Gwaine has ever seen in it—even before Escetia was devastated by war—and he wonders if he’d be able to find evidence of a smuggler’s route into the city now, were he to look.

Merlin will receive his letter soon, if he hasn’t received it already, and Gwaine finds himself relaxing, just a little—the constriction on his heart easing as the chatter of new people washes through the city, reminding him that the way between here and Camelot is not so impassable anymore.

Many of the sellers in the marketplace are not merchants at all, but women travelled from outer towns all laying out similar wares—men’s clothing, mostly, and after associating predominantly with the male court, it’s a harsh reminder to Gwaine that so many of the villages in Escetia are bereft of their husbands and sons. But there is opportunity, too, as morbid as it feels—for Gareth’s grown enough to need a new pair of boots. His long limbs need more clothes for the new season as well, and Gwaine suspects his pride could do with the bolster of some extra winter gear to see him out through the last dregs of cold, given that he’s survived thus far on Erin’s cast-offs.

Stacking Gareth’s arms high with new purchases gives Gwaine a warm sense of generosity, and his pockets are still heavy, so he says, “Why don’t you find something to send to your mother?”

Gareth peers at Gwaine over his pile of clothes, expression somewhere between hopeful and disbelieving. “Sir, but I don’t—”

Gwaine hefts a pouch of coin and holds it out; Gareth shuffles the balance of his pile around before taking it. He looks down at it, feeling the weight in his hand, and blinks. “I couldn’t—”

“Go, before I change my mind,” Gwaine shoos. “If there’s enough, get something for your sisters as well. And a new pack for those, if you need it.”

Gareth apparently doesn’t need any more encouragement, the crowd swallowing up his slight figure as soon as he turns away.

“A noble gesture indeed.” Gwaine turns to see who’s spoken, unsure even if the comment is directed at him until he sees the old woman smiling at him from nearby. Her wares—an eclectic array of ornaments and jewellery and items Gwaine can’t immediately determine the purpose of—are displayed in a cart with open sides, small enough to be drawn by a donkey. “And you’ll be wanting to buy a gift for your own mother, of course,” she says, clearly pleased to have caught his attention.

Gwaine lowers his head. “Would that I could, madam,” he says. “She’s long left this realm.”

The woman’s mouth pulls into a little moue of sadness. “A trinket for a sister?”

Gwaine shakes his head, though he can’t help but smile at her persistence.

“A charm for your lover, perhaps,” she says, mouth curling secretively. She comes closer, taking his hand and stroking his open palm. “There are some you may be particularly interested in, for stoking her ardour,” she murmurs lowly. This close, she smells rich and smokey, the scent of long travel.

Gwaine grins, the expression feeling odd on his face from long disuse. “Ah, but my lover is not lacking in charm,” he counters easily, and can’t help but be privately pleased at the double meaning, prompted by the woman’s blatant offering of tokens of magic, even as the claim stirs unexpected warmth in his belly.

He finds himself looking over her wares again, and his eyes catch on one item in particular, as profane as it seems.

“Ah, this piece, yes,” the woman says, pinpointing the object of his gaze immediately. She draws him closer to the cart with her hand still around his wrist; with her free hand she deftly unhooks the locket from her display and presses it to his palm. “Dug up from the barrow of a fairy king. It came to me from far in the north, and was surely waiting for this moment to be noticed.”

Gwaine lifts an eyebrow at that, but has to allow her at least a little embellishment—the locket indeed seems to be tarnished by the years, a dull, unremarkable silver but solid in make, bare of decoration but for thick, scrolling oak leaves around its seam. Its chain is long enough to drop down the wearer’s chest—no alluring display on a décolletage for this piece—and not at all delicate, the thick links almost perfectly circular. He cracks open the locket with his thumbnail and rubs his thumb against the hollow inside.  

“It is a gift suited to a lady of tenacious character,” the woman encourages. “It may be one thousand years old already.”

Gwaine bargains the woman down to a price that is more than reasonable, and after reassuring her that no, he really doesn’t need a sachet of cloves and caraway to go with it, she tucks the locket into a small velvet pouch which he slips into his pocket.

“Who’s that for?” Gareth asks, appearing at his elbow. He’s got a new pack slung over his shoulder, and a pleased flush over his cheekbones. “Your mysterious paramour?”

Gwaine rubs the locket through the velvet, hand still in his pocket. “He is far less mysterious than you imagine,” Gwaine says matter-of-factly, and turns away before his serene expression can give way in the face of Gareth’s wide-eyed look, finding himself smiling all the way back to the castle.

Before he can lose his nerve, Gwaine leaves Gareth to take the purchases back to their shared room, and heads into another wing of the castle entirely.

Bronwen welcomes him into her rooms immediately, but he discovers she’s not alone: the other three courtesans sit in the pale sunlight by the window, embroidering motifs onto fabric stretched taut in wooden hoops. Their gowns catch the pale light brilliantly, shimmering fabric as vividly coloured as gems; Gwaine’s sure he saw pedlars showing off bolts of it in the marketplace. After the long, drab winter, evidence of these women once more benefiting from the security of their place pleases Gwaine more immediately than the dry reports of budding prosperity delivered at court had.

“My ladies,” Gwaine says in deference. “I can return another time…”

“Not at all,” one of them says, looking up and giving him a cheeky smile; Gwaine recognises it well from that day in the forest, as he does the sweeping look she gives him. “Do you know how to sew?”

“I’m afraid it’s one of the few virtues my mother neglected to teach me,” Gwaine says apologetically. “Lady Bronwen, if I may…”

She steps aside with him, and he darts another look over at the suspiciously silent women before clearing his throat. “I was hoping you might do me the favour of lending the use of your shears again,” he says lowly.

Her eyes dart to his hair—it’s growing already, and will faster again with the onset of spring; he feels far less raw than he did the first week or so after she cut it.

“You seek to pursue Roman fashions after all?”

“No,” Gwaine says. “I need only a lock.”

“Ah,” she says, the sound curling out on a slow smile. “A token, then.”

“Who is to be the recipient of such a token?” one of the women pipes up—it’s the one with the mischievous look about her again—Lady Anna, Gwaine thinks.

The goad of her raised eyebrow is too much to resist. “One whom I find words cannot describe,” he says, dipping his head humbly.

Anna laughs in delight. “A lady, then—an illicit love, perhaps? One who does not mind that you are struck dumb in her presence.”

Gwaine smirks, buoyed by the banter and feeling recklessly confident with his words, the feeling heady after weeks of moroseness. “Illicit, perhaps. Certainly not a lady.”

Another one of the women lowers her work, not even pretending not to listen any longer. “You are pursuing the Greek fashion, then?” she says audaciously.

They laugh, and Bronwen rests a gentle hand on his forearm. “You must tell us at least something,” she says. “Consider it one favour for another.”

Gwaine searches her eyes for long moments, considering. “A servant,” he allows, and they make noises of exaggerated surprise. “In the Prince’s household.”

“Surely your mother would not approve of such a match?” Bronwen asks, teasing clear in her tone.

“I can say with absolute certainty that she would not,” he admits drily. “But she has more than enough from me that ought to make her satisfied. Now, will you grant me my favour?”

She first goes to her needlework, cutting a length of silk and tying off a lock of hair near the nape of his neck. Then the shears rest in a cool line against his skin, and with one deliberate snip it’s done; she places the lock in his hand.

“Here, just a moment,” she says as he goes to tuck it away; she cradles his hand in one of hers, then strokes the tip of her finger over the thread, whispering. The tie turns from a fawny brown into bright, Camelot red.

Gwaine looks up at her in surprise, the tingle of magic sinking into his skin, and she presses her finger to her lips, smile secretive and eyes joyful.

He runs into Lancelot in the corridor outside—and Lancelot looks briefly surprised to see him, eyes darting to Bronwen’s door and back again. Gwaine closes his hand tight around the lock and shoves his fist back in his pocket, knuckles brushing against velvet.

“Is there a messenger going to Camelot soon?” Gwaine asks quickly—though not rudely—before Lancelot can say anything.

Lancelot blinks, mouth pressing into a cautious smile. “This afternoon,” he says. “Once Ector’s heard the news brought in from the rest of the kingdom.”

Gwaine nods in acknowledgement, giving Lancelot a wary smile of his own. Lancelot looks like he wants to speak again, but while Gwaine hesitates a moment longer, Lancelot only pats him on the shoulder before they both move on.

Gareth is still sorting through his clothes when Gwaine returns to their room. He smiles cheerfully but doesn’t otherwise comment when Gwaine sweeps in and immediately pulls out his writing kit, propping himself up on his bed and hurriedly dipping his quill in the ink pot.
Dear Merlin,

It occurs to me that I have been remiss in demonstrating my affections to you. Though I claimed a token from you before I left, I haven’t yet given you one in return—I hope this gift makes sufficient amends. I will tell you of its provenance when next we meet, but in the meantime I hope that it is not too ordinary, or indeed too ostentatious for your tastes.

Please accept it as proof of my regard, if these past letters and the effusive words they contain are not sufficient. And tell me what I must say to you in person, so you needn’t ever doubt me?


◊   ◊   ◊

When the first buds of new growth are beginning to unfurl on the stark trees in the castle gardens, news comes from Camelot of King Uther’s death. It’s delivered in the form of a crier who accompanies another bevy of merchants from across the kingdom, and from there spreads from mouth to ear throughout the citadel.

The official messenger arrives a few days after, with a private message for Ector and a public decree for all and sundry: Prince Arthur will be crowned King immediately and take a wife at Beltane, with supplies to be distributed to annexed territories to hold celebrations of the wedding throughout the new kingdom. On a rare evening of excess, Kay leans close to Gwaine in the tavern and tells him of the further plans Arthur has shared with Ector—that he intends to open knighthood to any who wish to try for it, and will subsequently offer those of lower birth who achieve it holdings of land in Cenred’s former kingdom.

More than anything, it’s clearly an incentive designed to remedy Escetia’s decimated population, and Gwaine thinks of Amelia of Achelon for the first time in months, wondering just how willing she’d be to give up hold over her village for a foreign lord. Then again, there may be many women more than willing to marry into the new power, with direct blessings of the King.

And though Kay doesn’t mention it, with the unofficial news comes rumours of what other changes might come of the new King’s rule—magic seems to be poised under the surface of the city, more so than Gwaine ever felt in Camelot. It’s as if hope has sprung up with the first growth of spring: there is more laughter when he rides through the lower town, now, and less people closing doors and windows as he passes. Less than a week after the news, on patrol he sees charms newly hammered above doorways, arcane twists of magic bringing the occupants good health and fortune.

The private news bears orders for Lancelot to return to Camelot with the long-imprisoned dissident lords. The news is shared in counsel with Ector again, and Arthur’s command that Lancelot return immediately is apparently adamant enough that the phlegmatic Ector comments on it. Already unsettled by the lack of letter from Merlin in the latest delivery, Gwaine feels simultaneously sick with envy and with anxiety on Lancelot’s behalf.

Although Gwaine’s winter-long snit had kept them from their usual companionship, in light of this growing realisation that they may have more in common than he’d thought, Gwaine feels empathy for Lancelot’s plight. Not that they’d discussed any similarities in situation—though Lancelot had tried with his sympathetic overtures, Gwaine recognises now with considerable regret. But if Gwaine’s assumptions are correct, then surely Lancelot is venturing into the unknown by returning—called back in time for the royal wedding, no less—and feeling in turn as desperately adrift and hopeful as Gwaine does.

A skin full of travelling wine for the road doesn’t seem a sufficient enough apology for Gwaine’s animosity these weeks past, but Lancelot accepts it gratefully when Gwaine brings it to his rooms. Erin is bustling about packing Lancelot’s armour with an almighty racket, not taking the hint of Lancelot’s exasperated looks one bit.

Finally, he clatters out the door, and Lancelot exchanges an amused look with Gwaine in the sudden silence. It eases the air between them significantly, slipping back into the space of sharing thoughts—with merely a glance, a smile, a raised eyebrow—as if they’d never left it.

“If you’d like me to,” Lancelot begins carefully, “I can take a letter for you. We leave tomorrow at mid-morning.”

Gwaine nods once, and then again, firmly; his uncertainty flaring into resolve. “Yes,” he says, meeting Lancelot’s soft, understanding eyes. He uncorks the wineskin and takes a fortifying swig before handing it over. “Thank you, my friend.”

Dear Merlin,

You’ve convinced me well enough that the minutia of knightly virtues are of little import to you; a third letter from me in a row oughtn’t be too uncouth.

I hope that you received my gift. The thought of it not arriving at all—especially after all the times I’ve thought of you holding it, and wearing it against your skin—is troubling. For all that I long to be as demonstrative as any soldier and his wife, or courtesan and her lords, or king and his maidservant—who each marry, court and kiss under the benevolent gaze of those around them—I have no wish to place you in a situation that would compromise your position in Arthur’s household. I had hoped that the locket (while not too pitiful an offering!) would serve as a private token between us.

Even were you to wear proof of my regard openly, surely the scrutiny that Arthur bears does not apply to us? And even if we were exposed, I have no family to discredit; and what would those hostile lords care of who a servant tumbles, even if he is part of the royal household?

I feel I could spend pages convincing you to have faith in what we share, but I’ve burnt through most of this candle already, and Lancelot leaves in the morning, bearing this letter with him. For all that I am practically itching with jealousy of him for his recall, I imagine the royal household is fraught with turmoil at the moment, and hope you are managing to keep your feet amongst it. Know that the mood here in Escetia is one of rejoicing, for all it seems morbid—and I am glad as well, for if I’m not mistaken, soon Arthur will rescind Uther’s laws, and more than anything that means an assurance of your safety.

Selfishly, I cannot wait for you to show me just what you’re capable of. And look forward fervently to returning the favour, of course.

Yours faithfully,

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A week or two after Lancelot’s departure, Sir Elric arrives—a noble-born knight Gwaine has never met before, and although he has no doubt that Arthur has once more chosen wisely, the man’s haughty manner rubs Gwaine the wrong way. He has to struggle not to be snide in response to the most civil of questions, and finds himself missing Lancelot far more than he anticipated.

Though Elric brings with him further orders for Ector, when Gwaine visits the seneschal the day after Elric has settled, there’s no letter from Merlin.

There’s also no letter with the carts that arrive shortly before Beltane, bearing food and wine and other frivolities from Camelot, destined for consumption at the wedding celebration. With that convoy comes the rest of Ector’s household—including his young sons and wife—and more than anything, their arrival is a clear demonstration of Camelot’s assuredness of its hold over Escetia.

Gwaine is expecting to be relegated to sober peace-keeping duties for the duration of the Beltane festivities—and half-convinced that it would be for the best, as the last thing he needs is copious amounts of drink to tip him into a thoroughly maudlin state—but instead Kay seems to take rare pity on him, giving him the night off. And, in mind of passing the unexpected generosity along, Gwaine makes sure that Gareth knows he will be attending also.

Gwaine gazes out the window of their small room while the boy scrubs his neck and face in preparation. The countryside ashore is awash with the approaching indigo of twilight, the craggy hillsides and valleys dotted with the bright orange beacons of Beltane fires. There’s one lit in the gardens of the citadel already, and though it’s not visible, the smoke from it is sharp in the air. The primal scent of it mingles with the sweet smell of the bough fixed above their doorway, its sap sticky around the nails and soft flowers drooping.

Gwaine moves away from the window, impatient, and sits on the edge of his bed instead, fixing a dour gaze on Gareth in an attempt to hurry him up. Ordinarily Gwaine wouldn’t be so fussed, but Merlin’s long silence rattles him, and leaves an unpleasant prickle under his skin that he itches to numb with drink.

Gareth pauses in his ablutions and stares back, unmoved, and Gwaine doesn’t miss the quick flit of the boy’s eyes over his torso before he looks away again. Gwaine smirks; for all he feels on edge, it’s immensely freeing to not be wearing full regalia in chain and cloak, especially when it’s temperate enough that his favourite shirt—soft with wear and comfortable in the loose drape down his chest and arms—is perfectly sufficient garb.

“That’s going to come off,” Gareth says, looking pointedly at the tie of Merlin’s scarf around Gwaine’s arm, and he reaches over and tugs it loose easily despite Gwaine’s instinctual jerk away; even wearing it against his skin for most of the winter, it feels too fragile for someone else to touch. Gareth ignores him, though, and with a look of intense concentration, he folds the scarf carefully into a long strip. Then he sits beside Gwaine to re-tie it, a firmer band this time, just above Gwaine’s elbow.

“You could barely dress yourself if I weren’t here,” Gareth says haughtily.

Gwaine snorts, tension easing a little with the feel of the scarf tied tight again. “I’ve managed to get dressed and undressed with far more ease for years before you came along,” he retorts.

Gareth rolls his eyes and stands, flattening his hands down the front of his tunic yet again and fussing with his belt.

“You’d do well not to drink too much tonight,” Gwaine says, a little more seriously.

“You’re one to talk,” Gareth huffs.

“Have you been to a Beltane festival before?”

“Of course I have,” Gareth says stiffly, indicating rather clearly the unspoken part of that truth: not since I came of age. Gwaine remembers such celebrations from his own childhood, and they generally involved being put to bed at sunset.

“Then you know what it is they celebrate,” Gwaine continues.

Gareth’s eyes dart away from Gwaine’s, settling instead on the scarf he’s just tied to Gwaine’s arm. “I can take care of myself.”

Gwaine nods. “See that you do.”

Gwaine’s not sure if his advice to caution goaded Gareth into it, but he seems awfully keen to ensure that Gwaine’s cup is never empty. Not that Gwaine’s rejecting anything poured into it—it’s his night off, after all—and once the rich honey-taste of the mead has thoroughly infused Gwaine’s senses, Gareth seems to hie off and out of his sight.

While the music is pleasant—mingling with the shrieks of laughter and shouted song—the company leaves a little to be desired, for drinking amongst his fellows leaves Gwaine amidst the noble fires. There are more ladies than usual, as if Ector’s wife arriving has given the other lords leave to bring their wives back from the safer manors on their estates. They wear masks to protect their modesty amongst the primal rites, though their dresses are far too fine and impractical to leap over even the smallest of the fires.

Gwaine can barely stand to look at them. The mead has unravelled the tight, anxious tension his mind had coiled into, yes… But instead of dissipating, it’s just swirling about helplessly, entangling everything he perceives. The chatter is too loud, laughter too piercing, and it cuts him deep to see the ladies cling so blithely to their men. For all that the Beltane celebration purports to excuse all manner of impropriety, none of the couples kissing and groping and giggling are of the same sex, and it makes him ache to think that there never will be, for all Beltane celebrations he might attend in years to come.

One voice rises above the others; it’s Ector, Gwaine realises after a moment, and he stands reluctantly to get a better view. The Lord’s face is ale-ruddy, and the woman propped against his side is grinning just as widely below her red half-mask, giggling as Ector lifts his tankard again. “To the new Queen!” he bellows, and the crowd gathered around him shouts it back at him with varying degrees of coherence. “May this Beltane night bear fertile fruit for Camelot!”

Gwaine can’t help but laugh quietly at that; the thought of lovely, bashful Gwen loosens the knot in his throat. He lifts his goblet and joins the second cry of, “Queen Guinevere!”, thinking of Lancelot as well as he drinks, and what the wedding night might hold for him—hoping that it’s not merely heartache. Then the fickle mood of the mead twists on Gwaine, makes him imagine Merlin perhaps drunk and happy at a wedding feast somewhere leagues away, not even thinking of him.

Casting his eye about reveals more movement than chatter away from the noble fires, and Gwaine wanders in its direction, breathing deeply to try and clear his head. The music is louder here, and Gwaine finds himself abruptly surrounded by dancers wheeling around him; he double-takes as he sees Gareth speed by, arm in arm with a red-headed girl that Gwaine thinks he recognises from the kitchens. He’s wandered into the celebration of the castle’s lower-born occupants, and the realisation improves his mood immediately.

There’s laughter and jostling at his back, then someone’s pressing against him and reaching around, tying something cool and smooth over his eyes. It’s a mask, framing his view of the dancers with deep red satin, and he turns in the stranger’s arms to find Lady Bronwen grinning at him, her own face bare.

Her hands slide down his arms to grip his hands. “Dance with me,” she shouts above the noise, then pulls him into the flow of people without waiting for a response.

It’s too loud to talk. Bronwen’s feet move fast and confident, and it’s all Gwaine can do to keep up. Once he’s found the rhythm of it—and given over enough to concede to her guidance—he finds he’s laughing helplessly, spinning inside and out with the dance and the dizziness of mead. When they finally stop he’s breathless, as is Bronwen—her chest heaving and swelling her breasts above the revealing cut of her red dress—and she bows before him, low and lordly. There are still people spinning around them, the fiddle and drum reeling on, some dancers in more intimate embraces and some leading each other away from the light of the fires.

Bronwen takes Gwaine’s hand again and they laugh at each other, but when she begins to tug him away he loosens his grip, his steps after her reluctant. Bronwen giggles, stumbling back against him. She leans against his chest and stares up at him, then reaches up to stroke the back of her hand up his cheek toward the mask. “My lady need not be shy,” she says mock-seductively, startling another chuckle out of him.

The temptation is strong, especially with even just her touch on his face filling him with a sharp longing for the kindness and intimacy it promises. But his resolve is strong, too. As if she senses it, she slides down his arm again, fingers brushing along the top of Merlin’s scarf. “You need not deliver the blow of turning me down a third time,” she says, sounding resigned. “But surely you share my wish for company, if nothing else.”

He does—just feeling her pressed warm against him is welcome comfort, if nothing else—and he purses his lips, tipping on the edge of indecision. “You must be gentle with me,” he grants eventually, making an effort to play along even as his voice feels raw in his throat.

She laughs and starts to walk backwards again, and when she tugs his hand this time he follows. The light of the fires reaches out only a small distance into the gardens, and within a handful of paces Gwaine pushes the mask off and up onto his forehead to better see where he’s going. The music becomes quickly distant, the faint melody rising on the crisp spring breeze and pulse of the drums reduced to just the occasional snap of sound. Instead the dark yields up noises of unseen people around them; breathless giggles and gasps, low moans and words murmured too softly for comprehension.

Bronwen stops and lowers herself to the ground, drawing Gwaine down with her. “Lie with me,” she says, her voice fond and familiar, clearer to Gwaine than her expression in the veil of darkness.

He stops at kneeling, wanting but not-wanting, and she sighs.

“I am capable of asking for precisely what I want, Sir Gwaine,” she says. “Please. Just rest a moment here with me.”

The grass is cool against Gwaine’s neck and bare forearms as he lies back, and Bronwen settles beside him, her breathing slowing, body emanating warmth. They stare up past the dark spear of the tower to the inky sky above, wind occasionally carrying back to them the whispered crash of waves hitting the stone far below. Footsteps thud by near them, followed by a delighted shriek and the sound of bodies tumbling to the ground, then a long stream of laughter gradually draining off into silence. Bronwen’s hand finds his in the darkness, the connection of warmth no more than that, grounding.

“Sir Lancelot wrote to me,” Bronwen says quietly after some time. “To tell me of the King’s new ruling.”

Gwaine tilts his head a little towards her to indicate he’s listening.

“King Arthur has invited me back to his court,” she says. Then, almost as an aside: “I was there when he was born, you know.”

Gwaine huffs in surprise. Her thumb strokes over the back of his hand, and he can hear her breathing next to him, feel her poised tension. “Your family?” he prompts.

“That is my choice,” she says. “He’s given me a choice, can you imagine? I am to decide what to do. I may return to the city with my family, or seek a home with them elsewhere.”

“What will you do?” Gwaine can barely comprehend her predicament—though perhaps only in relation to family; the thought of belonging being held just out of reach for so long is not entirely foreign.

She shuffles closer, resting on her side to face him. “I don’t know. I don’t know what their wish will be. I haven’t seen them for twenty-five years.” The words puff against his neck, whispered and disbelieving, and in another moment her hand rests on his hair, stroking in idle comfort; he closes his eyes tight to feel it all the more. “My sons will be all grown. My daughters might have children of their own. I don’t know if they’ll even remember me.”

“I don’t know how anyone who’s met you could ever forget you.”

She laughs softly at the break in mood, then falls onto her back again, hands dropping away. “You are the worst kind of flirt,” she sighs.

Gwaine finds her hand again and presses an exaggerated kiss to it. “We can ride to Camelot together,” he declares, once he can deliver it with an even tone.

“Directly home,” she murmurs. “To your certainly-not-a-lady.”

He squeezes her hand in agreement, unable to speak.

◊   ◊   ◊

As spring drifts into summer, Ector’s court settles into a more comfortable formation. When the news from Camelot arrives that the ban on magic is to be repealed and a court sorcerer appointed, it is as if resistance to Pendragon rule never existed. With the decree finally comes a letter from Merlin, and Gwaine can barely wait to find privacy before he reads it. Though he recognises the handwriting easily, the seal on it is different again—not Gaius’ herbs, or Arthur’s dragon, but something entirely new; a tree stretching leafy branches upwards, and delicate roots downwards.
Dear Gwaine,

I will not speak of your last letter; instead I will save my response until we see each other in person, for finally, finally Arthur has plans to bring you home. With the change to the laws on magic, Arthur is renewing Camelot’s alliance with the druids, which will culminate in a ceremony at Midsummer. It is to attend this that Arthur is calling you back, and taking the opportunity to invite any magic users of Escetia who wish to participate.

Two knights and their households will be riding out to exchange places with you and Kay a few weeks hence, but you will not hear from me again after this letter—for Arthur is sending any magic user of Camelot who wishes to the druids, to prepare for the ceremony. Of course, I am to go along, which means I will not be able to write again before I see you at Midsummer.

I can scarcely believe it—that I will see you again within weeks. The castle is in chaos, and has been since Uther died; I am sorry I have not been able to write sooner.

But enough of that, you will see for yourself soon enough. Don’t you dare get into any trouble on the way home, or you’ll have a very angry sorcerer to contend with.

Yours, soon,

◊   ◊   ◊

Gwaine had been harbouring the half-considered thought that their journey would be faster on the way home, but they end up with a retinue again—as well as Bronwen there are two more sorcerers from the court who accepted Arthur’s offer to attend the ceremony, and of course all their associated servants and guardsmen. Travelling with sorcerers does mean more efficiency in some respects—setting up camp can be done in moments, for example—and Gareth seems to take a particular wide-eyed delight in it. It occurs to Gwaine that it’s quite likely that Gareth has never even seen magic performed before—the Purge was over and Camelot settled into the long era of Uther’s cruelty by the time he was born.

Even with those benefits, it’s sorely tempting to ride off toward the horizon and damn them all. Gareth’s baleful glares whenever Gwaine considers it make him turn to Bronwen instead, distracting himself from the nervous urgency fluttering in his belly with conversation. She at least has far more practice at hiding unrest with polite chatter.

The uneasiness spreads to the rest of the party when they pass the border into Camelot, and when Gwaine walks into the first tavern to see a charm fixed above the door, his sense of relief is immense.

At the Forest of Ascetir, Bronwen and the lords leave them—their servants continuing onward to Camelot with the rest of the contingent. Bronwen’s resolve seems to crack a little as they prepare to part ways.

“I will see you in a few days,” Gwaine murmurs to her, offering a sympathetic smile, and she musters one in return.

“I should like to see you again,” she says, “if you’re able to rouse yourself out of bed. I can introduce you to my daughters.”

He raises an eyebrow, keeping his expression droll even as his chest aches; he is not so sure as she is of what his welcome might be. She smirks as she turns her reins to follow the lords ahead of her. “My sons, I’m not so sure I can trust you with,” she says, and then tucks her heels into her horse’s sides and trots onward.

It occurs to Gwaine that she might see Merlin before him. The thought has him spurring Cabrion after her; she turns to him in surprise.

“Would you perform a favour for me?” he asks breathlessly.

“Of course,” she says, brows drawing in confusion.

He knees his horse forward. “If you do not object, convey this to another visitor from Camelot in the druid camp.” He takes her hand, dropping a light kiss to it, and her eyebrows lift, waiting for the rest. “His name is Merlin,” Gwaine says, “servant in the King’s household.”

She laughs softly, and he gives in to the sly grin that’s been creeping at the corners of his mouth.

“Very well,” she says, mouth curling in a smile of her own. “I shall be discreet, and pass the message on.”

“Thank you.” He bows slightly in his saddle, and stays to watch as they ride into the trees and out of sight, heart pounding.

◊   ◊   ◊

When the citadel appears on the horizon—her stout towers creamy in the morning light, red and yellow pennants streaming in the breeze—it almost feels like a dream. As they move out of the surrounding woods and begin the final stretch to the lower town, riders approach them, red cloaks flowing bright behind them.

Cabrion dances beneath him as Gwaine tightens his knees, then he urges her forward at a neat clip to meet the knights. It’s Percival and Lancelot, grinning like idiots and flushed from the sun. Gwaine can’t help but grin right back, smacking his hand onto Percival’s wrist for a greeting that leaves him wincing, and leaning in his saddle to embrace Lancelot.

“We weren’t sure you were going to make it,” Percival says as they ride the short distance back to the rest of the retinue, Lancelot urging his horse over to greet Kay as well. “You’re cutting it rather fine.”

“It’s not even noon yet,” Gwaine dismisses blithely. “All is going perfectly to plan.” He doesn’t mention the past several days of teeth-grinding slowness they’d progressed at; with the city within sight the tension of that anxiety is replaced entirely by the unsteadiness of nervous anticipation.

With Percival regaling him with tales of drunken antics at the royal wedding, they seem to reach the lower town far quicker than Gwaine had expected. Lancelot remains silent on Gwaine’s other side throughout the conversation, as inscrutable as ever, leaving Gwaine with the urge to shake an explanation out of him. It’s only Lancelot’s lack of brooding at the talk of Gwen that stops Gwaine from thinking he’d imagined every inference of something between Lancelot and the royal couple.

Gwaine shoves the jittery feeling aside as they slow their pace to ride more considerately through the busy streets, forcing a pleasant expression on his face. Rather than disinterest, a few friendly cheers spring up as they pass through, only serving to stoke Gwaine’s agitation as they approach the castle.

All over the city are banners and pennants, oak sprigs and green man faces decorating the outsides of houses, and when they ride into the courtyard Arthur and Gwen are standing at the top of the steps, cutting regal figures in finery far grander than any Gwaine’s ever seen them in. Certainly not Guinevere—he feels taken aback at the sight of her, bright eyes and broad smile made more dazzling still by the shimmering cloth of her dress, and the golden decoration of her jewellery.

They both walk down to greet the party, Arthur clasping Kay’s wrist first while Gwen makes a beeline for Gwaine, grinning.

“That certainly suits you,” is his first comment, nodding toward the golden circlet resting in her hair.

She giggles, leaning in to kiss his cheek lightly. “You’re looking well as ever,” she says. “You must come in and eat with us, have a cool drink after your long journey.”

Arthur approaches and Gwaine bows, and when he rises again, Arthur’s expression of haughtiness is belied by an easy smile lurking at the corners of his mouth. It just makes Gwaine all the more anxious: how can they be so at ease when it feels like his guts are being twisted into a knot?

“Your glorious return has indeed been long anticipated,” Arthur says, gripping Gwaine’s wrist. “We won’t keep you long, there’s far too much to be done in preparation for tonight.”

Gwaine dips his head again. “Thank you, Sire,” he says shortly, and it makes Arthur laugh and clap him on the shoulder.

“Don’t know why that never sounds as it should, coming from you,” he says. “Or from Merlin, for that matter.” He narrows his eyes at Gwaine in mock-suspicion.

Just hearing Merlin’s name makes Gwaine’s chest lurch in misfired recognition, and he forces an innocent smile onto his face.

“I think the day that it does is perhaps when we all need to start worrying,” Gwen says wryly. She rests her hand lightly on Gwaine’s arm. “Come on, I’ll send you on your way. You can change out of your travelling clothes, then return to rest after we eat.”

He’d known that Merlin wouldn’t be there to greet him—not that his long-held fantasies of sweeping Merlin into a kiss in front of everyone upon arrival were ever going to be actualised; certainly not after the last round of yet-unresolved letters they had exchanged—but seeing Arthur and Gwen again only serves to make his restless longing stronger.

“Has Merlin left a message for me?” he blurts as Gwen steps away, unable to stop himself.

She moves back closer to him, smile soft, and—his heart sinks—a little sympathetic. At least, Gwaine prays it’s sympathy, and not pity. “You’ll see him tonight,” she says, and it’s not reassuring in the slightest.

The familiarity of Camelot is jarring, especially with its sunny corridors in such stark contrast to the dimly-lit grime of Cenred’s castle; with every turn of the path the page leads him on he almost expects to see Merlin striding toward them, on some errand of his own. It doesn’t do much for Gwaine’s nerves.

At length, the page stops before a door in a wing Gwaine’s never been in before, though it is on the same side of the castle as the garrison. The page opens the door and bows slightly, indicating Gwaine should enter.

Gwaine steps forward with a grateful smile that the boy doesn’t even see with his head bent, and Gwaine huffs, bemused, when the door is shut behind him without a word.

The room is quiet and cool after long days on the road, surrounded by people and noise, dust and summer heat. It’s larger than his and Gareth’s in Escetia, but certainly not as enormous as Arthur’s chambers—though it is bigger than Lancelot’s had been. A bed dominates the space, looking luxurious in comparison to the soldier’s cot Gwaine has slept on for the past year, but nowhere near extravagant. It’s the only piece of furniture in the room aside from a writing desk set under a narrow window, and Gwaine wanders toward it, stirring up dust on the bare stone floor, motes whirling in the shaft of sunlight.

The window looks out onto another stone facade, folded on a corner and topped by a small tower; Gwaine is not familiar enough with the castle to tell where it is. The only other thing decorating the room is an old tapestry hanging on the adjacent wall; it’s so faded Gwaine can barely make out what it depicts. The writing desk stands bare before him, and he swipes another line of dust from it with his fingertip. Then he sets his pack down and digs out his writing kit, unwrapping it from its swaddle of clothes and dusting off the desk top with his sleeve before setting it down.

The oddly desolate room immediately feels more welcome just for having the kit’s familiar, warm polish on display, though when Gwaine turns back to the bed he notices something he hadn’t the first time.

There’s a garment on top of the dark coverlet, and as he walks closer he sees it’s a surcoat of stormy blue, the heraldic device embroidered over the chest beautifully detailed: an oak tree in green and brown with wide-reaching branches, leaves large and splayed. Its exposed roots curve more delicate tendrils downwards, negative space amongst them forming a familiar dragon scale shape—Gwaine reaches up to feel the curves and points of his pendant, fingers tracing the mirrored outline.

He supposes he’s to wear it to the ceremony—it’s not as if Merlin would have told them that he already had a family crest, though of course there wouldn’t be any way Gwaine would have consented to wearing it, even if they had known. He wonders what motif has been chosen for Percival and Elyan—and Lancelot, for that matter—and curiously traces the wending branches of the tree.

He’s startled by a knock upon the door, and before Gwaine can respond the door opens and Gareth bustles in, hauling more packs and puffing mightily. He dumps them on the floor as soon as the door closes behind him, and gives Gwaine a disgruntled look. “There are far too many stairs in Camelot.”

Gwaine grins and saunters forward, his anxiety at least partially set aside in favour of goading Gareth again. “Get used to it.”

Gareth rolls his eyes. “Not if I don’t have to. Especially as I’m sleeping in the garrison. You can keep the stairs to yourself.” He glances around the room, then back to Gwaine, and nods toward him. “You’re dining with the King, take that off.”

Gwaine sighs in resignation and holds his arms out, Gareth grumbling all the while as he deftly helps Gwaine get out of his mail and gambeson. When Gwaine’s down to his bedraggled shirt and trousers, Gareth steps back, arms full.

“You can wash yourself,” he says. “I’m surprised the Queen would come anywhere near you, smelling like that.”

Gwaine strips his shirt off. “We’re in Camelot, now,” he says, strolling over to the door. “You should expect your duties to change.”

Gareth wrinkles his nose. “I’ve seen you naked before, and it’s not an experience I wish to repeat,” he sniffs, and Gwaine smirks before sticking his head out the door, hailing a passing—and subsequently very startled—chambermaid and asking for water.

“You can have the rest of the afternoon off,” Gwaine says when he closes the door again. “Should give you time enough to run and find Erin.”

Gareth’s haughtiness shifts into a scowl, but—perhaps concerned that Gwaine will rescind his offer—he leaves without the expected retort.

◊   ◊   ◊

The rest of the afternoon passes for Gwaine with an odd sense of disconnection; for all the pleasure of seeing familiar faces—and their pleasure in seeing him—he still feels like he’s poised and waiting, not quite home yet, and not quite sure if that feeling will ever come. Arthur and Gwen preoccupy him for some of it. A visit to the stables to check on Cabrion takes up yet more time; he lingers there a long while with his eyes closed, absorbing the sounds and smells, remembering. It’s as stirring as it is calming; he leaves feeling as tightly-strung as when he entered, yet as if he’s been tuned to resonate at a keener pitch.

Gaius’ chambers are deserted, of people at least. The same clutter as ever occupies every available surface, books left open and equipment laid out in wait on the tables, glass bottles and ceramic pots crowding the edges of the shelves. The door to Merlin’s room is closed, and Gwaine can’t bring himself to open it, not wanting to discover what he already knows: that Merlin’s not waiting for him inside.

He hears his name called as he’s leaving the tower, and when he turns a servant runs towards him.

“Sir,” the man says breathlessly when he reaches Gwaine. “I’ve been asked to inform you that the party is leaving at the first evening bell.”

Gwaine’s anticipation leaps up in his belly; his insides feel bruised from all the tumbling about they’ve been doing since he first rode into the courtyard.

The hallways are bustling with servants on his way back to the room, running back and forth with pails of water and various items of clothing, heads down and largely ignoring him as he passes. When he enters the room, Gareth is waiting, wearing a simpler version of Camelot’s livery: a red tunic with a gold dragon embroidered over his chest.

Gwaine ambles past to pick at the plate of food that’s appeared on the writing desk. He shoves a few grapes into his mouth, not really hungry but keen to settle the restless emptiness of his stomach. When he turns back, it’s to find Gareth holding up the surcoat.

“No mail?” Gwaine queries through his mouthful.

Gareth shakes his head. “The King has declared no weapons and no armour,” he says, relaying this news as if he doesn’t quite understand it. “For some reason they’re even foregoing a fire.

Gwaine raises an eyebrow. “Perhaps because the last thing we need to celebrate the end of burning magic users alive is a bonfire,” he says drily, holding his arms out.

Gareth falls silent, clearly chagrined, then helps Gwaine settle the surcoat onto his shoulders, smoothing it down and running his hand over the fine embroidery appraisingly. “Any excuse to get your hands on me,” Gwaine comments smugly, making Gareth huff and roll his eyes, softening the air between them.

Just as Gareth steps away the sound of the evening bell rings out in the distance, making Gwaine’s heart thud wildly in his chest. Gareth looks back at him. “It’s time, then.”

They meet the rest of the party in the courtyard, Arthur and Guinevere waiting at their head, arm in arm. Lancelot’s wearing a golden surcoat, sunburst emblazoned on his chest, and he smiles when he sees Gwaine, coming to stand with him.

“Where exactly is this ceremony occurring?” Gwaine asks him, looking around curiously; the courtyard is nearly full of the castle’s occupants: nobles and artisans dressed in their finest, and knights in their colours, servants running about amongst them.

“Outside the city,” Lancelot says, “near the east road, close to the woods.”

“We’re walking?”

Lancelot nods. “It’s part of the ritual. The druids are walking as well, they will have camped in the woods last night.”

The people around them begin to stir into movement, and Lancelot gestures for Gwaine to follow him, picking his way through the crowd toward the front. Guinevere smiles at them when they approach; she’s wearing a different dress now, gold and green, circlet wound around with tiny white flowers, green stems freshly picked. Arthur is regal in red, of course, crown golden on his brow, watching the crowd silently as he waits, expression reserved.

Just when Gwaine feels as if he can’t wait around any longer, Arthur and Gwen step out and the slow march of the procession begins, out of the courtyard and through the town. The leafy decorations have multiplied since Gwaine rode through it only hours ago, and many of the townspeople come out of their homes to watch them pass.

When they get out of the citadel and into the open country, the servants run ahead to light a long avenue of torches, beacons marking their way. There’s a low murmur of chatter and laughter from the crowd as they walk, but Gwaine remains silent beside Lancelot; near them Guinevere and Arthur only exchange the occasional quiet word.

It doesn’t take as long as Gwaine thought it would to get to their destination; he can see ahead more torches already lit, their light brighter as the sky shifts colour from pale, clear blue to hazy grey-purple. As well as torches there are more servants, bustling about below canvas canopies and one tent made of finer stuff—it must be a royal pavilion, not a thing of battlefields or travelling.

The crowd falls silent as they walk through this small replica of civilisation, the servants standing still and bowing their heads as the King passes. No more torches are lit in the long empty space ahead of them, but even in the approaching twilight each detail of the grass underfoot and scattered wildflowers seems apparent to Gwaine’s eyes. He inhales deeply and finds it hard to exhale again; the landscape around him seems to be holding its breath as well.

From the trees ahead there’s the low hush of leaves shuffling in the breeze, the sound of the wind that moved them seeming to take on a low, distant hum, right on the edge of Gwaine’s hearing. Arthur seems to hear it too; he stops and looks forward, squinting toward the tree line, the blond hair not bound by his crown waving free on his forehead, moved by the gentle breeze.

The party stops behind them, and they’re only still for a moment before Gwaine spots light amongst the trees. It’s not the brash orange of torches, but paler and steadier gold, becoming brighter as it approaches. There are murmurs at his back as the crowd spots them too, and the humming seems to increase, flowing louder and softer like sound carried on shifting winds, and then the druids step out of the trees. Gwaine realises abruptly that the hum is their voice—their voices—scores of them approaching at a slow march, and the more of them that emerge, the more Gwaine feels the sound reverberate through the very ground, tingling through the soles of his feet, resonating in his chest.

The lights are small spheres that hover around shoulder height amidst the druids, and they’re gradually extinguished as they approach, leaving the shadows of the forest behind for the still-clear light on the field that the people of Camelot stand upon.

The druids are close enough that Gwaine can discern words amidst the low wave of sound when he realises that Merlin is walking at their head. So keenly had Gwaine been searching the rows of faces in the crowd that the unexpected sight of him right in front sends a shock of recognition through Gwaine’s body, leaving him trembling. All the druids are wearing their characteristic green robes, though there are a few amongst them with greener cloth, or browner; Merlin’s is a familiar muted blue—the same colour the faded scarf that Gwaine’s been treasuring no doubt once was, and the same colour as Gwaine’s surcoat.

The connection falls together in Gwaine’s mind, and it’s all he can do to keep his place and not run forward. Though he’s not entirely certain his legs could support him; knees locked and thighs tense.

Merlin’s path through the grass leads him directly to where Arthur stands, and each step closer allows Gwaine to perceive a fresh detail: the longer sweep of Merlin’s hair over his forehead and the tops of his ears; the blue stain of druidic swirls and symbols winding sinuously down his bare forearms, coiling around his wrists and to his fingers. He’s wearing a crown of oak leaves, luscious and green, face pale and angular below it. The neck of the robe is open, and just covered by the rough weave of cloth Gwaine can see the muted glint of a familiar chain.

Merlin brings the druids to a halt a few yards from Arthur, the very humanness of the voices now more obvious for all that magic is still thick in the air around them; Gwaine fancies he can hear each individual voice chanting the same refrain, young and old, man and woman. As it levels out into silence, Merlin finally looks away from Arthur. Gwaine sees him meet Gwen’s eyes, lips twitching in a small smile, and then his gaze flits along the crowd of people before him.

When he catches sight of Gwaine, Gwaine sees his body jolt, the same blow of recognition he’d felt himself. Merlin’s chest swells with his breath, and his eyes bore into Gwaine’s. Gwaine’s heart pounds like it wants to break right out of his chest and close the painfully small distance to Merlin all on its own. They stare at each other for long moments, Merlin’s unfettered smile matching Gwaine’s own, and at last Gwaine raises his eyebrows and dips his head in a small nod; Merlin breathes deep and closes his eyes briefly, opening them to refocus on Arthur.

With Merlin’s eyes off him Gwaine feels abruptly released, weak and wrung out, but all the more desperate to be closer; his resentment of the crowds surrounding them is intense. He keeps his eyes on Merlin’s solemn, beloved face as Arthur says, “Druid, do your people sanction the sorcerer I have appointed to serve in Camelot’s court?” —and Gwaine’s letter, his final, unanswered entreaty for a life of discretion—snaps into the forefront of his mind, making his heart plummet and face burn hot.

“We do,” the man standing next to Merlin says, the same swirls and motifs adorning Merlin’s arms tattooed onto his neck and clasped hands.

Arthur nods in acknowledgement, the tone of his voice as he continues somber and ceremonial. “Then may this ritual, and this sorcerer’s place in the governing of Camelot, serve to heal the rift between us. May magic be welcomed back into this kingdom, and begin the growth of a new era.”

He holds his hand out as he says the last; there’s a single green acorn resting in it, which he turns to offer to Guinevere. She smiles at him, her eyes fixed on his and her touch lingering as she accepts his offering. Then she steps forward to stand in the centre of the space between him and Merlin and gracefully descends to the ground, kneeling. With her bare hands she parts the grass, scooping away earth before placing the acorn into the furrow she’s made and pressing the soil firmly back over it. She stands and brushes the dirt off her hands, and Arthur catches one in his own when she returns to his side, lifting it briefly to his lips. Gwaine doesn’t miss the fleeting glance over her shoulder he sends to Lancelot, either; and he wonders if it was only his sensitivity to such things that made it seem so obvious.

But his gaze doesn’t stay on them for very long, because Merlin’s stepping forward now, and he raises his outstretched arm to hold his hand, open-palmed, over the place Gwen planted the acorn. He doesn’t speak, but breathes deeply before staring intently at the spot, and Gwaine’s breath is stolen from him again when Merlin’s eyes flare a sudden, brilliant gold. The druids begin chanting again—more intent this time, the prickle of their magic in the air tangible.

From the earth a delicate green frond emerges. After wavering for a moment, it lifts its curled head and abruptly fans its first leaf open, brilliant green. Then another leaf grows, and another, quick and without hesitation, the slender stem thickening and shooting upward.

The chant increases in volume and Gwaine is almost certain he sees the blue swirls decorating Merlin’s arms flow sinuously from his elbow and out where his hand is held. The sapling is taller than he is, now, and growing even faster still, its leaves flourishing outward and upward. The trunk thickens, as wide as his wrist, then his thigh, then his torso; and then wider than a single man, then perhaps wide enough for four men to stand with their arms wrapped around it, fingers just touching.

Arthur and Gwen are forced to step back, but Merlin’s gaze is directed upwards as his hand rests on the trunk, his face fey and beautiful in its intense concentration, eyes blazing. The druids’ chant gains further volume, pushing power forward and Merlin’s nearly glowing with it, the branches of the oak stretching high and extending wide.

Finally the growth of it slows, and the chanting drops to a murmur again, Merlin breathing hard as the final fingers of the oak’s branches reach out just above the heads of the gathered crowd. Magic swirls around it, a visible golden haze, curling into the same patterned shapes stained on Merlin’s skin. Gwaine doesn’t realise just how big the tree is until the patterns diffuse and the light rises to settle amidst the branches, illuminating everyone’s upturned faces in the new twilight.

The chanting ends, and from Camelot’s side comes a sudden explosion of cheers, the roar of it far less coherent than the druids’ spellmaking, but no less fervent. Gwaine lowers his gaze to Merlin’s face again; Merlin’s expression is energised and triumphant, and Gwaine can barely join in the shouted praise, as overwhelmed by awe as he is. Then Arthur steps forward, moving toward Merlin, and as if this gesture has broken some unseen barrier, both crowds surge forward and merge, and Gwaine loses sight of them.

◊   ◊   ◊

Part Six