This story was done for a fic contest for Gwen on LiveJournal.
Gwen first met Arthur in the spring she turned six.
Back in those days she was just the child of a local blacksmith and his wife, a woman who had been a drover's daughter and collected flowers for the local florist to get the family a little extra money.
There was little to offer her in the way of life. She was certainly better off than most common folk in Camelot but the social ladder was still a steep climb. Her father knew at her birth that in their world all she was destined to stay trapped in the same position. But her mother was never content with that.
It had been her mother that had convinced Tom to better himself as well. By the time Gwen was four Tom was considered by many to be the best blacksmith in Camelot, so much so that some of the knights and nobles preferred to go to him rather than the royal blacksmith. Her mother, a woman who was well meaning but ambitious, was always convinced that her daughter was destined for greater things. It was because she had bettered herself by marrying a blacksmith.
Gwen's mother was always looking for a shortcut up the social ladder. That was how she came to get a job in the palace. Her mother had friends who worked in service there and her father was a favourite of the nobility in the castle. Nonetheless she started out as a cinder maid, spending her days stoking fires and making hot water. After a few months the older servants trusted her to carry hot water for nobles' baths. She and another girl would carry a huge bucket between them while the young scullion carried the bath.
The hours were long and the work was tough. As her mother washed her she always told her the same thing: "One day it will all be worth it, you'll see. You'll never have to wait on anybody again. Maybe people will even have to wait on you."
She found that hard to believe when she worked at the lowest point of the palace. Often she would glance out the windows and see other children of her station playing in the streets while she worked.
One day Gwen had just finished scrubbing the floors. Her dress was drenched in water and the stone she kneeled upon shone in the white daylight coming through the high windows. Her arms ached from the overwork. Twice some of the young noblemen's sons had walked across the floor with their muddy boots, sneering as she looked up hopelessly. The only reason they had done it was so she had to do it again.
"You, girl!" came a voice.
Gwen looked up to see Gaius, old even in those days, standing over her with a permanent scowl on his face. She knew who he was; everyone did. He was one of the many people her mother knew vaguely in the castle as she sometimes collected herbs for him.
"Yes, sir?" she asked.
"Have you finished here?"
Gwen clambered to her feet stood silently with her head down. Gaius reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bottle. "I wonder if you could do me a favour?"
He handed her the small glass bottle of bright yellow liquid. Gwen pulled a face, thinking it didn't look very pleasant. "Take this to Prince Arthur's room. His servant should be there. Tell him it's for his cough, understand?"
She thought his voice was rather patronising. "Yes, sir."
She placed the bottle in her pocket while picking up the bucket of water to take to the courtyard – she might as well kill two birds with one stone since it was on her way to the prince's chambers. She'd only ever taken water up there when his servant requested it, but never actually seen him. Truth was no one ever saw the prince. He lived in a bubble. By order of his father he seldom left the castle from fear he would catch something from the lower quarters of the city.
"Don't forget about it" Gaius said.
Gwen looked at him, "I won't, sir."
He nodded, just about to leave. "Which one are you?"
"What's your name?"
"Guinevere," she replied.
Gaius seemed to spark with realisation. "You're Tom the blacksmith's daughter?"
Most people knew who she was when they heard her name. She nodded. "Most people call me 'Gwen'."
He nodded too, reached into his pocket, and gave her a bronze coin. She looked it and looked at it. "I don't except you to do that round for nothing," he replied.
She smiled, "Thank you, sir."
Emptying the water onto the cobbles of the courtyard she left the bucket and scrubbing brush by the door of the kitchens before making her way towards the wing of the palace where Arthur's room was. She climbed the stairs and walked down the shiny chequered corridor towards his bedroom door.
She knocked twice before finding it was open. Debating for a second whether or not to enter, she decided to go in and leave the remedy inside.
Walking into the unfamiliar room she glanced around for a servant or anyone to give medicine to. The room was filled with books for study, animals and soldiers made of wood, and many other things she had seen in the rooms of young noble children but to a greater extent, of course.
Seeing no one around she spotted a table in the room next door to the bedroom through a set of velvet curtains. She left it in there know someone would notice it when they returned. She decided to leave quickly not wanting to be caught loitering in the royal prince's chambers.
She turned to leave when someone standing in the archway between the bedroom and the dining room coughed and startled her.
A young boy around eight years of age with wheat coloured hair and dressed in a fine red tunic stood staring at her. Although she had never seen him before she knew straight away that this had to be Prince Arthur. He looked exactly like a prince did in fairytales; the sort of child you knew would grow up to be handsome.
The only problem was that he knew it.
There was a scowl creasing his forehead. She became very conscious of the fact he was looking her up and down. He was clearly not impressed by the grubby, wet and faded dress she was wearing. His eyes had latched on to a tear in shoulder of the dress. She felt exposed, thinking he'd be wearing the same expression if she'd been standing there naked.
Another small cough escaped him as he finally looked her in the eyes again and gave her a patronising wobble of the head. "Yes?"
She didn't waste any time in explaining, turning around to pick up the bottle and hand it to him. "Gaius, the court physician, asked me to give you this."
"I do know who Gaius is," he replied in a superior voice. He spoke down to her not only because she was the help but because she was younger. He looked at the hand holding the bottle, not taking it from her. "What is it?"
"It's for coughs, I think."
He wasn't paying attention. His eyes were focused now on a spot of grey dust from washing the floor that had dried on her hand. "How do I know this really came from Gaius?" he said suddenly, folding his arms.
Gwen stood, not knowing how to answer. "I don't know. It just did."
"Yes, but how do I know you aren't trying to poison me?" he asked.
She was shocked, why would he think that. "Because… I'm not."
"But how do I know that?"
"Because it's true."
"But what if it isn't?"
This was too much. Gwen shrugged, "Gaius wouldn't poison you and I wouldn't either."
"I know Gaius wouldn't poison me," the boy said with a smug smile, enjoying making the little girl squirm. "But how do I know you wouldn't?"
Gwen looked at him, starting to get annoyed. "I wouldn't poison anyone."
"You could be lying."
She reached the end of her tether. "Well I'm not!"
He seemed taken aback by this. Gwen pursed her lips, fighting to keep her face neutral and not show a scowl. It was difficult because his snobbery was very irritating. He looked her in the face again and took the bottle delicately between two fingers. He regarded it sceptically.
Another little cough escaped him. He made another smug smile and pocketed the bottle. "Fine, I believe you."
Now she knew why someone would want to poison him. He was the most infuriating idiot she'd ever met, and she'd had such a short life.
She swept past him and walked towards the door.
"Did I say you could go?" he called after her.
"Sorry sire," Gwen said as she stopped, sighed and turned. They stood in silence for a full eight seconds.
Arthur nodded, "Now, you can go."
There was a short pause. Gwen turned to leave, muttering, "I hope you enjoyed bullying me."
He looked at her, surprised she had answered back. "Excuse me?"
She forced a smile. "I said 'I hope you enjoy your medicine, sire.'"
As she went out the door he spoke again. "Was that a joke?"
She turned around, "No, sire."
"What is your name?" he finally asked.
"Guinevere," she replied. "Everyone calls me Gwen."
He tilted his head, "As a term of endearment?"
She shook her head, "No, because it's shorter."
Gwen got her first real doll when she was seven.
In the year that followed it was not necessary for Gwen to work for the money, as her father received the patronage from one of the king's closest friends, the Duke of Cornwall. It had all started when Tom made him a sword after the one the royal blacksmith made broke at the hilt during a sword practise with his brother. He stated that the sword was the best he had ever had and began to go to Tom for all his needs from armour to horseshoes. The money they received was not a terribly large amount but it was more than enough to get by.
Her mother was thrilled.
"We're moving up in the world, my doves," she said to Gwen and Tom. "I told you, didn't I? Hard work pays off. After a while someone of a high position notices your worth."
It was still through her mother's terms that she worked, her mother's desire to see her excel. It was because her mother's theory that hard work will gain the attention of those with power had been proved right, so she used it as an excuse to keep Gwen working hard. Every time Gwen was reluctant to tolerate another day of scrubbing floors, carrying water and cleaning out the cinders, her mother would say one of two things.
The first being; "Dove, if your father thought like that we would have no money." And the second being, "Remember the day you met the prince, one day he will be a king. By that time you may be a servant of a higher status… maybe to a great lady. Who knows? It might even be the queen."
The extra money meant they could afford more than the necessities. Her mother gave her a lovely doll for her birthday. It was made of painted wood with moving limbs, real hair and clothes on it.
All the other girls who lived near her were very jealous of this valued toy. The trouble was that with all the work she had to do she very rarely found time to play except on lazy Saturdays or secretly on Sunday.
It was a well-used doll.
She would play with it while watching her dad work, brush its hair, and sleep with it when she was put to bed. It was well used because she valued it. All the girls of the palace had many dolls, all of them cast aside despite the fact they were beautiful, twice as beautiful as her doll.
But she loved that doll because she was hers.
"You, cough medicine girl!"
Gwen looked up and, in surprise, saw the prince standing in front of her. Near ear by were his old servant, a nobleman and about six guards. It was a remarkable sight. People who walked passed double took. The prince was hardly ever allowed outside the castle, if at all.
"My name is Gwen, sire," she replied, hugging her doll to her.
"I don't like Gwen," he told her. "It's boring."
"I am boring," she retorted. "You probably shouldn't talk to me, sire. I don't want to get into trouble."
Prince Arthur scowled, "I hardly ever get to go out into town and I will not be told what to do by the likes of you!"
"So you should be. And your doll looks haggard," he declared. "You should throw it away."
"I like this doll," she replied. "It's the only one I've ever had."
"The only one?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "All the girls at the castle have loads of dolls and they never play with them." Gwen wanted to reply back, but she stopped herself. However Arthur could tell she was going to say something. "What was that?"
Gwen looked at him, "The girls at the palace can have anything they want. I'm thankful for this doll because I know it's the only one I'll ever have."
Arthur stared at her, considering what she said. Finally, he smiled. It was almost frightening. The only time he smiled was when he was about to be nasty.
"Yes, I suppose you're right."
Behind him came a call from the nobleman: "Arthur, come along!"
"Yes, Ector," he groaned. The guards gathered around him and Ector placed a hand on his shoulder to lead him off. The prince looked at Gwen before striding off. "Farewell, little doll."
Gwen stood and watched as he and in montage disappeared into the crowds. Her mother was thrilled, and said so too as she brushed straw and autumn leaves from the step.
Gwen was not the only person to lose a parent the year she turned eight. It was the year that the winter Battle of Cornwall took Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall and left his daughter an orphan. It was particularly painful for Tom not only because he had lost his greatest 'fan' but also because, he felt, he had lost a friend.
It was not a good year for the family.
At least her mother didn't live to see Gorlois die. Gwen still remembered the way her mother arranged a vase of flowers on the table the week she fell ill. The illness crept up through her and then, within the space of six days, she was dead.
Two days before her mother died, while she was still ill in bed, she had ordered Gwen to go to work. The whole time she was distracted and no one was sympathetic, even those who knew. Eventually they became so frustrated with her making mistakes they set her to scrubbing the floor all day.
All alone she scrubbed and scrubbed, the whole time her mind completely on her mother at home. She went back and forth from the kitchens to the floor she was cleaning with water. Not once would she let herself cry.
Towards the evening on her eleventh trip back from the kitchens she slipped on the wet floor, dropping the bucket. It spilt all over the floor in a wave of bubbles. Gwen knelt down hopelessly, trying not to let it get to her.
"You dropped the bucket," came a voice.
Gwen looked up to see it was the prince. She looked down again, "Yes, sire."
He swaggered passed her with a matter-of-fact look on his face. "It must have looked at your face."
Listening to him tiptoe his way across the puddle of water on the floor, Gwen looked down, telling herself she wouldn't cry. Once she was certain he was gone, however, she began to silently weep. She was wet, tired and very frightened. The idea of her mother dying was a horrific thought for a small girl.
The footsteps came back. "Are you crying?" the prince asked.
Gwen attempted to dry her face with her damp hands.
"Don't cry," he said looking down at her. "I was only teasing. You have a nice face, really."
The night her mother died Gwen sat at her side until the end. On her deathbed she had told Gwen to keep working hard:
"One day you will have privileges beyond any in your wildest dreams, I promise you. You just have to keep working, and remember that although I am gone I am still with you. I'll make sure you have angels to watch over you for the rest of your life."
The funeral was a simple affair. All the neighbours accompanied Tom and Guinevere outside the city to the public graveyard where the body was put to rest. If it had been up to her mother she would have been cremated but law forbid anything to do with the old religion, even if there was no magic involved.
For the following weeks after her mother died Gwen would sleep in her bed, trying to remember the way she smelt and thought. For a moment she could pretend the blankets were her mother's arms and she could imagine her voice in her head. Yes, her mother had been harsh, a dreamer and a pusher, but she was still her mother and she had loved her.
One day, after life began to carry on again, Gorlois came to her father's workshop to offer his condolences. He stated that he couldn't begin to imagine how hard it was for him – his own wife had simply runaway – and that it had to be hard for Gwen.
That was when he gave her a small but beautifully decorated wooden box. He told her that he had thought to give it to his own daughter but she had plenty of jewellery boxes. "I imagine you have plenty of things you could keep in it," he said smiling. "I just wish it was something more exciting."
Gwen took the box and smiled. It had such a beautiful pattern and even had a key to lock it with.
It was then that he suggested that Gwen become a servant to his own ten-year-old daughter, Morgana. Tom leapt at the offer, adopting his late wife's ideals that it would be 'a big step up.' It was clear to Gorlois also that Gwen was a remarkable young girl who not only showed loyalty and hard work in everything she did but also she was truly a lady of the house. She already knew how to cook, after all.
Her mother would have been thrilled. It made Gwen wonder if there was an angel watching over her.
It was a belief confirmed later when she awoke one morning to find that her doll's limbs had fallen off. She sat on the steps outside the castle in the gardens trying to fix it before she had to make lunch for Morgana. She watched the young boys who were in the middle of a drill, led of course by the prince.
At that moment Gwen saw her lady walk out of the castle and up to the boys. Almost immediately she began to hurl abuse at Arthur and the rest of the boys. She teased them about their 'shabby' reflexes and how weak muscled they were. She saw how Arthur folded his arms and gritted his teeth, resisting the urge to push her over. It was clear that he saw Morgana as a friend – but that didn't mean she wasn't unbelievably irritating too.
Gwen thought it remarkable as she behaved in a similar way to how Arthur treated people, treated her. Yet at the same time she felt sorry for him. She knew how he felt and at least felt empathy with him – in the sense he was being teased and couldn't do anything about it.
With Gwen it was because she was a servant, and knew she would get in trouble. With Arthur it was because he was a boy, and knew that he should never hit a girl.
Once Morgana had finished her assault she swept back into the castle, very pleased with herself. As she did she commented to Gwen, "Could he be any more annoying? That showed him, through."
As the boys dispersed the only one that remained was Arthur. He artfully spun with a wooden sword in his hand. After a while of showing off his skill to no one he turned and saw Gwen, still trying to fix the doll.
"Finally broke, did it?" he asked in his prince-voice. "Your doll?"
"Yes, sire," she replied.
"Why don't you just throw it away? It's had a long run."
"Because my mother gave it to me."
The prince was cleared his throat. "Oh, I'm sorry."
No you're not, she thought. "Thank you."
She had to return to work not long after that. There was no hope of her fixing the doll and her father was too busy to do it herself. Hopelessly, she decided that the prince was right. Maybe it was time to throw it away. With a heavy heart she left the doll on the firewood pile and returned to work. She may have even let a tear fall. She even thought she made a speech.
A few minutes later, however, Gwen instantly regretted it and decided to go back for the doll. But it was gone. Gwen regretted it throughout the rest of that day, that night and the whole of the next day. Then that evening when she returned from work and her father was still in his workshop, she returned to the house to find a package left just inside the door. She opened it and to her surprise it was her doll with all her limbs reattached.
Part of her wondered if her mother had spirited the doll away and fixed it for her. But she quickly realised it was a mortal's doing. She never found out who it was though.
Finally, that Christmas when Gorlois died and Morgana was heartbroken, all the sorrow Gwen felt over her mother's death had to be forgotten. There was no point crying about it anymore.
Gwen kept that doll safe for many years. It fell apart again with old age and folded up neatly into the box she had been given. She kept it locked away with secret love letters and other treasures, keeping it by her bedside.
Sometimes when she woke up in the middle of the night, with the fire still burning near by she took up the box to remind herself of the doll. When she grew up she began to do this less and less. There was too much going on in her life to worry about the past anymore. The death of her mother also became a faint shadow in Gwen's memory after the death of her father.
Eventually the box was moved to another bedroom but past that move, it was forgotten under a book and candle. It stood silent in the summer evenings as she entertained her husband in the next room and ignored as they made love in the candlelight. It was even neglected when they simply sat in bed – he with papers to finish and she reading the very book that covered the box.
But when she did it remember the box she remembered her mother. She thought of her ambition, hardness, and innate belief that Gwen was destined for greater things. No one could have predicted how right she was.
Arthur placed a kiss on Gwen's lips. "Let's put the candle out.
Without a second thought she leant over and snubbed the flame out.