Summary: Arthur is marrying Gwen – but things aren't what they seem
Arthur is marrying Gwen.
Merlin says "It's a mistake." Arthur doesn't listen. Morgana agrees with Merlin but of course Arthur merely thinks she is jealous.
Gaius won't hear of interfering with Arthur's free will and Uther is delighted that his son will be wed so soon, the better to provide an heir.
When Merlin confronted the dragon about this problem, the ancient scaly beast threw back his head and laughed uproariously until a tremor was sent through the foundations of the castle. "Things will be as they will be," the dragon said, and that was all the advice he would give.
Gwen, on the other hand, is heartbroken. She's loved Arthur from afar for years, growing ever closer to him. They've shared some wonderful and terrible experiences. That he felt anger and grief over her father's death was incredible for her to behold and in that moment she knew for certain that he would one day be a great king, a fair king. When she tended him after the Questing Beast's bite, she prayed he would survive, would have given her life if it would have saved him.
She's a commoner and she knows her fantasies of Arthur returning her love are just that; fantasies. The wedding will end her hopes once and for all. The marriage of Prince Arthur and the Lady Gwenyfar.
Guinevere is a maidservant; Gwenyfar is a noblewoman
Guinevere's skin is the colour of strongly brewed tea while Gwenyfar's is as pale as the milk that might be added to such a beverage.
Guinevere's hair is as dark as coal, hanging in long sensuous curls past her shoulders, worn tied back most of the time due to her duties. Gwenyfar's flaxen tresses sit in straight lustrous curtains to her waist, held back only with a jewel studded diadem.
Guinevere's eyes are the shade of brandy, warm and inviting. Gwenyfar's pale orbs are the colour of old ice, so light as to seem almost transparent.
Guinevere is compassionate and reliable and vibrant while Gwenyfar is aloof, capricious, ethereal.
Merlin loves Guinevere as if she were his sister, with fierce devotion, and he trusts her with his life, and with Arthur's. He does not trust this Gwenyfar, from the kingdom beyond the Black Mountains, whom he knows nothing of. He dislikes her intensely; the way she distracts Arthur from the problems of the commoners and the way in which she studies other nobles despite being betrothed to Arthur.
"She's just trying to settle in," Guinevere says bravely. "If she's distant, it's because she's not sure how to act. It can't be easy, leaving behind her whole family to marry Arthur."
"How can you defend her?" Merlin demands. "This is not right. It will end badly, of that I am certain." He knows it deep in his bones, though he cannot say how or why. His magic has never given him premonitions before, though Morgana's gift bestows such visions.
He once tried to ask Morgana if she has seen the future of this union by asking if she had been dreaming.
"Every night," Morgana said softly and enunciating every word, repeated, "Every single night." She would say no more about it, though clearly her dreams disturbed her.
It must be an enchantment, Merlin thought, but none of his spells have yet revealed a supernatural cause for Arthur's obsession with the noblewoman. Arthur himself has been unable to articulate exactly why he desires Gwenyfar so strongly, and his attempts to do so, talk of completion, of need, of being unable to stop thinking about her, they sound like the normal insanity of love.
She's no witch; Merlin has been close enough to Gwenyfar often enough to know this much. Whatever power she has over Arthur, it is not magic, or if so, certainly not hers. There is no glamour upon her, she is no demon dressed in human guise.
Merlin longs to find some shred of evidence that Gwenyfar is something sinister. For one brief moment he even thought about framing her, "finding" proof that she is a witch. Uther would cut off her head quicker than he could say "The wedding is off." Yet he couldn't. Whatever else she might be, Gwenyfar is innocent, and no matter how he feels about the upcoming nuptials, Merlin can't bring himself to destroy the woman that his best friend is so desperately in love with. To watch her killed would destroy Arthur, and Merlin cannot let that happen.
The morning of the wedding arrives too soon.
"She's not the right woman for him," Merlin says. He's been banished from Arthur's chambers for voicing such treasonous words.
Next to him, eyes red-rimmed but with a smile pasted firmly on her face, Gwen sighs. "Who should he marry?"
"You." The word is out before Merlin can stop it. Is this another premonition, what might be? Or just wishful thinking?
Gwen laughs, but it's not in joy and has a hysterical edge to it. "I'm a servant," she reminds him, tugging at clothes that are her best outfit, clean and simple, and despite their immaculate austerity, a clear indication of her station. She points to her mistress, taking her seat alongside Uther. Morgana's gowns are made from layers of many -hued silk, with a bodice full of gold embroidery and over these, a velvet cloak with rubies at the clasp.
"When he can have a noblewoman, why would he even look at me?" Gwen's voice trembles a little as she asks the rhetorical question. Merlin's heart breaks a little for her.
They both know Gwenyfar, soon to approach her groom, is dressed in more finery than even Morgana. They both know that how she dresses shouldn't be a consideration in choosing a bride. They both know the stranger is not the right bride for Arthur but neither of them can do anything about it.
"There is one thing," Guinevere says.
"What?" Merlin asks.
She gives him a sad smile. "At least she shares my name."
Guinevere is sometimes said to be Gwenyfar (and other variants), and there are so many different takes on the legends, from different places and at different times, that drawing the stories into a coherent mythology is a challenge. But why should there only be one Gwen?
This was my idea for contrasting the loyal Gwen we know with the Queen Gwen who cheats on her husband with Lancelot. I've ideas for another couple of fics that would explore how what we are seeing now might become the "traditional" story of Merlin and Arthur; in mythology, more than one thing can, I think, be true.