Drake took a deep breath of the chill, frosty air as Thunder padded along the Great North Road. They had left New Camelot early that morning, and Drake was glad that the only others who had been up to see him off were Josh and Max.
Didn't want to run into the Princess? Thunder asked, giving a little mental chuckle.
Far from being unnerved that the huge gray wolf could tap into his thoughts, Drake had long ago grown used to having his companion in his head at all times.
"What do you think, furball?" Drake teased, scratching behind Thunder's ears as the wolf gave a rumble of pleasure. "You know things have been weird between us ever since the battle with Morgana."
Thunder twisted his head to the side and used one of his eyes to peer at Drake. Things are only weird because you avoid talking to each other. Sunstar and I have no problems.
"Yeah, well, Sunstar and you are just friends," Drake grumbled.
So you are hoping Princess Gwenevere and you will become more than friends? Thunder pressed. Drake sometimes hated when his wolf got so nosy.
"Yes…no…maybe…oh, I don't know!" Drake said, throwing his hands in the air.
Better make your mind up quickly or that beast boy will steal her away, Thunder replied.
"Thanks for cheering me up, buddy," Drake muttered.
The sun was bright on the snow that blanketed the ground, and Drake was thankful Josh had loaned him a pair of sunglasses for the ride. Birds chirped from the barren treetops, and Drake caught sight of a few white foxes hiding under a fallen tree trunk.
Maybe your family will do a better job than me, Thunder said.
Drake laughed. "I think they'll be a little too busy to deal with my emotional issues! We're getting close to New Year, and you know how busy the Inn gets around this time."
Thunder gave a wolfish bark. As much as I like the Welcome Inn and visiting your family, Drake, running away from the Ian problem won't make it go away.
Drake absentmindedly scratched Thunder's shoulder as he buried his face in the great wolf's fur and sighed. "You know why it's hard, Thunderbolt," Drake whispered. "I wasn't there for Gwenevere when she needed me the most. I was supposed to be her knight, and I utterly failed her."
Thunder huffed, his breath clouding in the cold air. You don't know if she sees it that way. Sunstar, Shadowsong, and Moondance certainly don't. They know we couldn't make it through the Grandfather Travel Tree. But we were there as the Princess forged the One Jewel.
"Yes, we were," Drake ventured, "But Ian was there for much more…" he trailed off. He didn't want to bring up the kiss between Gwen and Ian that he had been forced to witness, and was thankful that Thunder picked up on that and stayed quiet on the subject.
They traveled in companionable silence for several more hours, stopping at a way station for some lunch before continuing on along the Great North Road. As the sun began to dip low on the western horizon, Drake caught sight of a curl of smoke emerging from behind the next hill.
"Come on, Thunder. Home and hearth await," Drake said with a contented sigh as the wolf spurred forward at a run.
They crested the small hill and broke through the trees. Below wolf and rider lay a huge, sprawling complex that was known as the Welcome Inn. As the only major stopping point between New Camelot and Talus in the north, the Welcome Inn was always a bustle with activity. Drake's family had run the venerable establishment for decades and developed a reputation secondary only to the Du Lac family for comfort away from home.
The main part of the Inn was a large, three-story timber and fieldstone building with a blue slate roof (currently covered in snow). To one side was situated a huge stable for the care of the many magical and non-magical creatures that accompanied the human guests. A large tower emerged from the stable that housed a rookery. Next to the main Inn ran a brook that turned a large waterwheel that Drake knew powered a millstone used to grind wheat into the flour his mother Marga used in making her famous bread.
Thunder gave a howl as he bounded down the hill toward the house. Almost instantly, a gaggle of people spilled out the door and began rushing toward them.
"Uncle Drake and Thunder!" his nephews Aran and Bastian yelled as they sped ahead of their aunt Darlynn and grandfather Johnas. Drake's father was a huge man - taller and broader than King Jared himself - and easily picked up his son off of Thunder before crushing him in a tight hug.
"We've missed you, my boy!" Johnas boomed as Aran and Bastian rolled around with Thunder in the snow.
Darlynn gave a deep husky laugh. "You'll miss him more after you've crushed him to death, Papa!" she said. Johnas coughed in mild embarrassment and set Drake down.
"When did you get so big, squirt?" Drake teased as he hugged his younger sister. "I swear you must have grown three inches since I was here last!" Drake twirled his younger sister to get a better look at her. Not only had his sister grown taller, but more beautiful as well. Darlynn would share their father and Drake's height, but definitely her mother's features and soft chestnut hair.
"Oh Uncle Drake, can we get Thunder settled in the stable?" five-year-old Bastian pleaded, tugging on Drake's arm.
"We'll take ever such good care of him!" Aran – older brother by one year – chimed in, tugging on Drake's other arm.
Drake laughed as he gave a long, thoughtful look at Thunderbolt. He knew the wolf would relish the attention, and he couldn't deny such a small pleasure to the youngest members of his family. Flexing his arms upward, Drake bodily lifted his nephews from the ground. "If you don't do your very best, Thunder will be forced to gobble you up!"
Drake and his father lifted the boys onto Thunder's back, and the great gray wolf sped away, taking them on a ride around the Inn before bedding down for the evening.
"I fear they become more like your sister Drucilla every day," Johnas said. "Able to get anything they want, those two!"
Darlynn looped her arms through Drake's and their father's as they headed back to the main house. "It's only because you're such a soft mark, Papa!"
Johnas raised one of his bushy white eyebrows. "I don't see either of you in a hurry to give me other grandchildren."
Darlynn coughed, embarrassed herself this time, before deftly changing the subject. "So Drake, did you have a good trip?" she asked.
Drake nodded. "Thunder and I hardly met anyone on the road. It was a nice, quiet trip."
They arrived at the cheerfully painted red front door of the Welcome Inn, and Johnas opened it for his two children. The main dining and meeting hall was packed with people. Drake took a deep whiff of the smells of home and childhood: his mother's bread baking in the oven, the mouthwatering aroma of stew bubbling back in the kitchen, the scent of wood smoke from the cheerfully glowing fireplaces.
As it was New Year's Eve, many of the local farmers and ranchers had come to spend the evening at the Inn. Drake's parents always threw a huge New Year's bash, and he always made a point of being home for it. There was dancing, and every local musician turned up with instrument in tow.
"Drake darling!" his mother Marga called from the kitchen, waving Drake down with a white towel. Drake bounded toward her and picked up his mother in a fierce hug while the patrons of the Inn hooted and looked on. While Johnas was tall and broad, Marga was a short, pleasantly plump woman who was quick to smile and quicker to slap your hand for reaching across the table. "Oh, I'm so glad you made it home safely."
"We're happy you made it hope period this year," a man said, materializing beside Marga. It was Drake's brother-in-law Mathieu, husband of his elder sister Drucilla. "What with all the hubbub going through New Camelot in the past few months, we weren't sure you'd be able to get away."
Drake nodded. Since Merlin had returned and Lady Kale and Morgana been defeated, Drake had originally expected life to take on its previous pace. But with Gwen training with Merlin now and nobles streaming back into New Camelot to see the Great Wizard, things had been busier than ever!
"We've been putting out proverbial fires everywhere, it seems," Drake said. "In addition, the Pack is still working on stabilizing the magic of Avalon's Eighth Land."
"When you wrote me about a talking tree, Wishing Jewel, and a two-headed bear with plans to open a diner I thought you might have had a glass or eight too much of mead!" Johnas roared with laughter, slapping Drake's shoulder.
Drake grinned. "It does sound pretty far-fetched, even for me."
"Well I want to see it for myself," Darlynn said matter-of-factly. "It's not even that far away! Drake, didn't you get there after leaving Cloud Mountain Castle?"
Drake nodded. "Through a hole in the Border Mists. You still have to take the portal to get there, though Merlin is looking for an area where we could relocate such a huge land mass in Avalon."
Marga kissed Drake's cheek. "Well don't be a stranger, son. We've got plenty of food going back in the kitchen and lots of folks who'd like to say hello to you. It should be a lovely evening." Marga's hand flew over her mouth. "My biscuits are still in the oven!" she cried, racing back into the kitchen with Mathieu following closely behind.
"Where's Drucilla?" Drake asked. He hadn't had a chance to greet his elder sister yet that evening.
"No doubt making sure all is in order in the kitchen," Johnas said as he lead Drake and Darlynn to a table and settled them down with tall steins of hot mulled wine.
Drake sighed after taking the first sip. "Oooh, that's good. Certainly takes the chill off!" He and Darlynn chatted for a few more minutes while Johnas made rounds with the wine flagon and made sure all the guests were well attended to. The farmers and ranchers seemed to appear in rotation at their table, and Drake was delighted to see all the old family friends. He was peppered with a few questions throughout the evening, but the folk around here knew the young leader of the Pack was here simply to visit his family and were too well-mannered to spoil that time for him.
Finally, Marga, Mathieu, and Drucilla appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, each bearing steaming trays of food. "Dinner is served, my good people!" Marga called out as they set up the buffet. Drake and Darlynn jumped up and loaded plates with beef stew, whipped potatoes, crusty bread, and moonberry pie.
"You've outdone yourself again, Marga!" Johnas said, kissing his wife.
She blushed deep scarlet. "Stop that, you lug!" she said, swatting her husband with a dish towel. Still, she was beaming and smiling.
The party lasted all evening. After dinner, Drake and Darlynn pushed the tables to the edges of the room and led the country dances they had grown up with. Mead, mulled wine, and his father's cider were passed around until the grandfather clock said ten minutes until midnight.
"Everyone outside!" Drake said. "I brought back a little surprise for you." Everyone trooped outside into the snow as Drake called Thunder to him. The great wolf bounded out of the stable, and Drake removed a leather satchel from the saddle. Opening it, he revealed a huge stash of fireworks from New Camelot.
"Are they dangerous?" Marga asked, hands wringing her towel.
Drake laughed. "No mother, not dangerous."
Darlynn smiled, pulling out sparklers. "What are these?"
Johnas lit a match and ignited the end of one. As Darlynn danced around with it, creating beautiful patterns in the air, Bastian, Aran, and many others joined in. They set off twinkling fountains of light that illuminated the snow-covered ground, and finally Drake, Mathieu, and Johnas set off a series of small rockets that blasted off into the air, leaving sparkles in everyone's eyes.
After the last fireworks had been set off, the group trudged back inside and warmed themselves by the fires once more before heading off to bed. Drake bid Darlynn and his parents good night as they walked upstairs to their rooms. However, he still hadn't had a chance to speak with Drucilla yet that evening.
Poking his head into the kitchen, Drake saw his sister dicing potatoes. "Dru, it's after one," Drake said. "Shouldn't you be going to bed with everyone else?"
Drucilla turned to face him and wiped her hands on a towel. "Just wanted to get an early start on breakfast for tomorrow morning. Lots of hungry people to feed."
Drake hugged his big sister before picking up a peeler. "Then I'm at least going to help you," he said, waving the peeler around like a sword.
"You'll put your eye out if you keep carrying on like that!" Drucilla chuckled. "But then again, you never could stop playing adventure."
Drake began peeling, and Drucilla continued dicing as they talked late into the night. Despite the long ride and big party of the evening, Drake somehow didn't feel tired.
"I forgot to say thank you," Drucilla said as she scraped the potato pieces into a large kettle.
Drake was surprised. "Thanks for what?"
"Letting Aran and Bastian take care of Thunder. They love that wolf and idolize you, you know," Drucilla said. "They say they want to grow up and be Jewel Riders just like their Uncle Drake."
Drake blushed. "But you don't approve?" he said quietly.
Drucilla shook her head. "It's not that I don't approve, Drake. I just don't want them to get their hopes up for nothing."
Drake nodded. "If you would like, I can talk with them."
"Heavens, no!" Drucilla replied. "Whether I approve or not, I would never do anything to dash one of my boys' hopes or dreams. We all have different paths and lives to lead."
"Are you happy here, Dru?" Drake asked, setting down the peeler and looking his sister in the eye.
She looked thoughtful for a moment as she leaned up against the table. "One doesn't have much time for reflection in this business, but I suppose I am. I worry about mother and father growing older, and the future of my boys. But I have Mathieu, who I dearly love, and you and Darlynn. Though I'm not sure how much longer she'll be around here; you did hear her speak of the Eighth Land?"
Drake nodded. "She seemed really eager to go."
"Lots of people are. It's not often new real estate and new opportunities open up like that. I'm trying to get her to perhaps attend the University in New Camelot next term, study forestry or geology or something practical, but Darlynn's heart is out there somewhere, I'm afraid," Drucilla admitted. "Still, it would do my heart good if she was somewhere you could keep an eye on her."
"Do mother and father know?" Drake asked, laying a hand on his sister's shoulder.
Drucilla shrugged. "You know how they are. If they do know, they're not letting on. Besides, they always encouraged all of us to follow our hearts."
"This may sound selfish," Drake said. "But I'm glad your heart compelled you to stay here. It's nice to know home will always be here."
Drucilla's eyes were bright. "Aye, we'll be here for you, little brother." She wiped her eyes on a kitchen towel. "But enough of that! How are things between you and the Princess?"
Drake groaned. "I was really hoping nobody would bring that up."
Drucilla laid a hand on his arm. "Word travels, even way out here. Rumor says she has found a new love in the Prince of the Forest. Is this true?"
Drake shrugged. "I'm not sure, honestly. They kissed after the battle with Morgana in the Wild Magic, but I haven't seen Ian around New Camelot since right after the encounter. Gwen disappeared for a few days after that, but she returned shortly afterward."
"You must declare your intentions to court the Princess," Drucilla said firmly.
"What?" Drake asked, holding his hands up. "Whoa, whoa, who said anything about courting?"
Drucilla rolled her eyes. "The gauntlet has been cast by the Prince of the Forest, Drake. If you truly love the Princess Gwenevere, then you owe it to her - and yourself - to be honest with your feelings."
Drake sighed. "I wish that it were that easy."
Drucilla planted her hands firmly on her hips. "And why shouldn't it be? Much as you try to talk over it, I know you care for her a great deal."
"Things aren't like they used to be between us," Drake admitted, thinking of their time together searching for the Crown Jewel of Burning Ice. "I wasn't there to protect her when she needed me the most."
Drucilla gave an exasperated sigh. "Drake, the Princess is perfectly capable of protecting herself. She had the Sun Stone and now the One Jewel, after all! No, the Princess doesn't need your protection, but she may well benefit from your love and support."
Drake stood there stunned for a moment. He had never truly considered that. Sure, Gwen was practically bursting with magic, and now more than ever had moved past what he could ever do with a Forest Stone. "But I am her knight," he whispered. "Protection is what I do...who I am."
"Then you must protect her heart," Drucilla said before giving a big yawn. "Oh dear, it's close to three!" she said, looking at the clock on the wall. "Off to bed, off to bed!" she said, wiping down the counters and shooing Drake from the kitchen.
Drake spent several weeks at the Welcome Inn greeting weary travelers, fixing things, taking Darlynn and his nephews on long rides through the countryside, and just generally enjoying spending time with his family. The revelry of New Year was long behind them now as Ianuarius stretched into Februarius.
Drucilla and Darlynn cornered him one day as he was chopping wood for the Inn's many fireplaces. Drake could see his breath cloud in the air from the cold, but the rhythmic work quickly warmed him up, and soon he had shed his woolen cloak.
"Drake, we have to talk," Darlynn said as she handed him a towel to wipe the sweat on his brow.
Drucilla nodded. "Our sister is right, Drake. The Feast of Saint Valentine is fast approaching, and you must be in New Camelot if you are to win the Princess's hand."
The wolf rider had been dreading this talk for almost a week now. It had not escaped his notice, of course, that the Feast of Saint Valentine was approaching. Drake had been waffling back and forth as to whether he should return to New Camelot, or skip it entirely and save himself the heartache.
"So, you finally got tired of my company, eh?" Drake joked in an attempt to cover up his true inner turmoil.
Drucilla gave an exasperated sigh. "You know that's not it. But if you miss this chance, it shan't come again."
Darlynn nodded in agreement. "Dru's right, Drake. You've hidden out here for over a month. The Princess might be willing to give you a little time, but don't push your luck!"
"And if she still loves Ian?" Drake shot back.
"Better to make a fool of yourself and know for sure, then," Drucilla replied. "You have nothing to lose, though, and everything to gain by being truthful with her."
Drake sighed. His sisters were right, of course. "Well then, it looks like I'd better be packing up to take off tomorrow."
Drake waved to his parents and family as Thunder trotted away from the Inn. It had been a good visit - both for Drake's homesickness and for clearing his muddled head.
We need speed this time! Thunder said, panting as he made his way for the closest Travel Tree Ring. Paradoxically, this took them in the opposite direction from New Camelot, but Drake knew that following the Far Road would pass very near a Ring.
Drake patted his wolf's head. "Don't wear yourself out, champ. The Feast doesn't start until late tonight."
Thunder whined. I'd rather you have time to prepare, if it's all the same. You need all the help you can get, after all. He gave a wolfish bark.
"I love you too, furball," Drake smiled, glad for the thousandth time to have such an understanding animal partner. Thunder made excellent time, and by midmorning they had reached the Travel Tree Ring. Drake raised his Forest Stone and addressed the great trees. "Travel Trees at bend of lane, bring us to our home domain!"
Magic swirled from the Trees' canopies, transforming their leaves and trunks from wood to crystal. "We recognize the Forest Stone, worn by Sir Drake," they rumbled, the crystal flashing with every word. "Where is it you wish to go, young Jewel Rider?"
"Please allow us to ride home with you to the Crystal Palace in New Camelot," Drake said.
A swirling portal opened between the four trees, and Thunder eagerly jumped through. Colors of every hue swirled around the pair as they followed the Wild Magic pathway back to New Camelot. Thunder jumped through the portal's exit and deftly landed with a crunch in the snowy field that surrounded the Crystal Palace.
Drake thanked the Travel Trees, and as they pair moved out of the Ring, he was promptly blindsided by a snowball to the head.
"The prodigal son returns!" Joshua yelped with glee as he launched another snowball at Drake with a laugh. Josh was surrounded by Stormrunner, Fallon, Moondance, Tamara, the Babies, Max, and Shadowgale.
Drake laughed as he was reminded that the last time they all played in the snow together was after finding the Crown Jewel of Burning Ice. "What are you all doing out here?"
"A little winter exercise never hurt," Fallon said.
"Especially considering we'll be stuffing our faces later at the Feast," Max said, putting an arm around Tamara's shoulders. Drake was glad to see his friends finally admit their feelings for one another. Max and Tamara made a good pair.
Tamara reddened a little in the face, but Drake couldn't tell if it was due to Max or the chilly air. "How are you family, Drake?" Tamara asked, patting Thunder as Drake dismounted.
Drake smiled. Tamara was always concerned for others and their well-being. "They're fine. My little sister might be attending the University next term."
"Let me know if she does - I have lots of contacts there that could take her under their wing," Tamara offered. Drake knew the pink-haired Heart Stone rider spent lots of time at the University with her spellsinging and other musical studies.
"Don't forget my dad's a Professor there, too," Josh added as the group began making their way back to the Crystal Palace. Joshua's father was part of the faculty in the Department of Engineering, and often asked the Pack for assistance with road surveys.
"Nothing's for sure yet," Drake admitted. "I think she actually wants to take off exploring through the Eighth Land."
"Then count me in!" Fallon chimed in. "I've been itching to get a good look at that place since reading you and Gwen's report."
Drake blushed at the mention of the Princess. "Speaking of Gwen...is she around?"
"My cousin has been holed up in her room since you left New Camelot, Drake," Max said. "Even with the upcoming Feast tonight, she's hardly been out at all aside from training with Merlin and her royal duties. And you know how much she loves a good party. Aunt Anya is getting worried about her."
"We're all growing a little concerned," Tamara said.
"Hasn't anyone tried to get her out yet?" Drake asked, bewildered at this latest turn of events.
Fallon nodded. "I've had Moondance suggest daily rides to Sunstar, but Gwen says she isn't feeling well enough."
"Do you think she'll make it to the Feast tonight at least?" Drake asked, hoping he hadn't come all the way back to New Camelot for nothing.
Max nodded. "I expect she'll at least make a cursory appearance. For Uncle Jared and Aunt Anya's sake if nothing else."
Drake simply nodded in response as the group arrived back at their dormitory rooms. He waved goodbye to the rest of the group who were headed in for a bit of lunch as he began to unpack his saddlebags and satchels. As he was emptying one of them, a small blue box tumbled out and fell onto his bed.
Drake gave a sharp intake of breath. He hadn't remembered packing the ring when he'd left for the Welcome Inn, and yet here it was. After their experience in the Dreamfields, Drake had had the gold and ruby ring commissioned for Gwen based on his hazy memories of a similar one he had possessed in the dream. Shortly after the goldsmith finished it, though, Gwen had met Ian and Drake ended up tucking the ring away.
Drake opened the box and gazed absentmindedly at the ring for a few moments. Did it represent a future he might never see? Perhaps, but Drake knew that tonight was the night he would give it to Gwenevere. Whether she accepted or not, Drake had come to the realization that he didn't want to let her slip away without a word.
Pawing through his wardrobe, Drake realized with embarrassment that he didn't have much in the way of formal clothes. His Pack dress uniform didn't seem appropriate for a night like this. Reaching into the back of the wardrobe, Drake's hand seized on something. He pulled it out, and gave his second sharp intake of breath as he realized the articles of clothing looked just like those he had worn in the shared dream: blue jacket with gold cords, green cape, white pants, and dress boots. Drake was sure he had never actually owned these clothes, but he pulled them on to find a perfectly tailored fit.
Shaking his head, Drake pocketed the ring and left his room. Snow had begun falling across the Crystal Palace again, covering up the tracks he and the other Jewel Riders had made earlier. The world felt quiet and at peace, and the wolf rider was reminded how beautiful New Camelot was in winter.
Drake cheerfully greeted King Jared in the hallway, asking his mentor if the Princess was around.
"I think Gwen's in her second-floor reception room," the King answered before bidding Drake good fortune and promising to share a drink that evening at the Feast.
Drake made his way to the reception room, and knocked once on the burnished wood door. No answer came from the other side, however, so he gingerly opened the door and poked his head inside. A fire roared in the marble fireplace, but the chairs surrounding it were empty. Drake spied the etched glass door to the balcony open on the far side of the room, and made his way to it.
Gwenevere stood there like a vision in white, her fur-trimmed, hooded cape drawn close around her shoulders. The Princess stood with her back to Drake, seemingly lost in her own thoughts as she stared out over the frozen landscape below.
"You'll catch cold if you keep standing out here like this," Drake said quietly.
Gwenevere jumped slightly as she was pulled out of her reverie. "Drake, you gave me a fright!" she gasped, placing a slender hand on the wolf rider's arm. "When did you get back?" she asked.
Drake could hardly think, so focused was he on Gwenevere's hand so close to his own. With great deliberation, Drake maneuvered his hand around Gwen's. "Your hands are like ice!" he said, a scolding note in his voice. "How long have you been out here?"
Gwenevere gave him a coy smile. "My question first."
Drake rolled his eyes as he began rubbing Gwenevere's chilled hands between his own warm palms. "I returned just a few hours ago. Looks like I was in time for the Feast," he added nonchalantly. Was he imagining things, or did the Princess's eyes sparkle briefly when he mentioned the Feast of St. Valentine?
They stood in silence for a few minutes while Drake blew warm air across Gwenevere's hands and continued rubbing them. "I've...been out here awhile, I guess…" Gwen finally said.
"I guess the real question is why?" Drake asked.
Gwen tilted her head to one side, and removed one hand from Drake's grasp. She reached into her cloak and drew out the One Jewel. It glowed with an inner, magical light. "Probably this thing, if I had to guess. It upended my life in a single day - everything is different now. Who I am was tied for so long to the Sun Stone. I find myself questioning if any of it is real, or just a dream," Gwen sighed, putting the jewel away and placing her hand back in Drake's.
"It's as real as the friends who love you, Princess," Drake said quietly.
Gwen smiled. "I remember. That's what Merlin told us in the Dreamfields after we found the Crown Jewel."
"Then do you remember what else he said?" Drake asked. "He said that the Jewel of the Dreamfields represented the magic of love." He looked away from Gwen then, unable to meet her eyes. "I know that the love I felt there was real, and I haven't forgotten it."
"Drake…" Gwen began, before he held up a hand.
"Please Gwen, let me say what I came here to say. I've known I was in love with you ever since that dream. I tried to convince myself otherwise, that it was just the magic of the Dreamfields and my own illusions speaking to me, but I have to know if you felt it too. The world outside that dream hasn't felt right without you by my side," Drake said.
Gwenevere squeezed his hand and moved in close. Drake wrapped her in his arms as tiny snow flurries danced around them. "Of course I felt it, Drake. You appeared in my dreams more than once, you know."
"Then why did you kiss Ian after battling Morgana in the Wild Magic?" Drake asked, his voice rough with emotion.
"It was an emotional moment, Drake!" Gwen said with an exasperated sigh as she pulled away from him and leaned against the railing. Her blue eyes took on a faraway look as she surveyed the Palace grounds. Long minutes passed as they stood there in silence. "Do you remember those days I disappeared after the final battle?" she asked.
Drake nodded. "Of course."
"I went back to the Forest of Arden with Ian. To heal from the battle…and to see if what I was feeling for him actually meant something real."
Drake swallowed. "And what did you find?"
"Nothing. Outside the Wild Magic, Ian can still only become human once a year when we share in the dance of the Fairy Wraiths to renew the forest. Even the most powerful jewel ever created can't change that," Gwen said.
"Oh," was all Drake could think of to say.
Gwen turned around to look at him. "So you see, it was never really meant to be between Ian and I." Tears stung the corners of her eyes, and Drake found himself embracing her again. "Drake, I owe you an apology."
The wolf rider shook his head. "You don't owe me anything, Gwenevere. I should be the one apologizing for not being there when you faced your greatest challenge and foe." Drake kissed Gwen's hand.
"Morgana may not be my greatest challenge. There are many years of magic ahead - when I am Queen, I'll need a King by my side," Gwen said. "Someone strong yet gentle, kind and loving."
Drake smiled as he recognized the words Gwen was speaking as the same ones she had spoken in the dream. "I would pledge my life for you, Gwenevere," he said, repeating his own portion. Reaching into his jacket, Drake brought out the gold and ruby ring. "Gwenevere, my Queen…"
"Drake," she sighed with contentment as he slipped the ring on her left ring finger.
"You know it was always meant to be."
Gwenevere closed her eyes, and Drake leaned in to kiss her. The Princess's lips were warm and soft despite the cold air surrounding the pair. They walked back inside, and Gwen shivered lightly before moving close to the fire. "Do you think we should announce it tonight?" she asked, indicating the ring.
"Why don't we let the rest discover it on their own?" Drake replied, a grin splitting his face. Gwen giggled and nodded before placing her hand in Drake's. As they watched the flames dance in the fireplace together, Drake knew that he was home.
AN: I've always wanted to indulge my love of the Drake/Gwen ship, despite the fact that it was almost totally ignored in the second season of the show. I like to stay fairly canon compliant, however, which left me with the big question of what to do with Ian. He and Gwen kiss in the final episode, but the first season throws out more than a few hints that Drake and Gwen are destined to be together. But the show provided its own answer: despite the fact that Ian appears human in the final battle, the "Prince of the Forest" episode is quite clear that he can only turn human once a year when he and Gwen share in the dance of the Fairy Wraiths. It's nice when canon can actually solve your problem instead of compounding it. Thanks for reading!