Gwen sat at the top of the stone stairs, not far from Morgana's chamber. She wiped her forehead, slick with sweat. Her legs felt weak and she prayed for just a few minute's silence. It wasn't usual for her to avoid work, she prided herself on the standard of care she provided, but today was a little different. She was coming down with something, she would swear to it. Her whole body ached, chills wracked her, she even had to duck out of sight for a few minutes earlier for fear that she'd vomit.
She sighed, today of all days, no one would leave her alone.
"Yes, my Lady?" She asked, standing up and brushing off her skirt.
"Have you fetched my dress for tonight? It's nearly time to prepare for the feast." Morgana wasn't nagging, she was never rude to her handmaiden.
"I was just heading to the laundry to fetch it now, my Lady, I'll return shortly."
"You're looking a little peeked, Gwen, are you quite well?"
"Yes, I feel very well," Gwen lied.
"Don't let anyone waylay you into more chores on your way, I know how you are." Morgana's voice followed her down the stairs.
Stairs, why did the palace have so many stairs? Her knees ached with the effort of climbing down, she wasn't sure how she was supposed to make it back up. The laundry was on the other side of the palace, and with each passing step she had to work harder to keep her composure. The worst was that when she was finished, she would still have to attend Morgana at the feast, which was sure to last well into the night.
The halls were busy with servants, preparing for the evening, attending to their masters and mistresses. King Olaf and his honour guard had arrived not long ago and once they were settled in the festivities would begin. At least there was a hunt planned for the morning, which wouldn't require her presence, maybe she could get someone to cover her duties for the morning and try to sleep off this bug. Not likely, her mistress' nightmares had been particularly vivid lately.
The smell of cold stone only exacerbated the headache growing behind her eyes, and every footstep echoed in her ears. Every voice carried down the hallways, it felt like she was surrounded with people although there was plenty of room to move. This sickness was intolerable, she wasn't the kind to get sick easily, and when she did it was very rarely this bad. What she wouldn't have given for five minutes, two minutes, one minute to herself. Inside the palace it was impossible. If she was honest with herself, anywhere within the city limits it was impossible. It wasn't so much to begrudge people's dependence on her every now and then, was it?
Well, today it was too much. King Olaf's arrival was very important to Camelot, particularly after the... incident. Gwen praised her luck that the Lady Vivian was not accompanying them, still under strict house arrest and, as far as she knew, a love enchantment with Arthur. The memories stung, but she had become accustomed to forcing them out of her head, refusing to fret over what might have been if she'd let her affair with the prince progress any further than it had.
Not that her willpower mattered much when she felt miserable. Like when she was alone at night, or fretting over Morgana's nightmares. Or sick. Not that she was prone to pitying herself, but at times like this it was hard not to. Maybe relenting to Arthur wouldn't prove her immune to disease or loneliness, but it would have stopped the gnawing in her chest, and she would have had someone to go to when she felt like this. Him. She would have had him to go to, which was far better than anyone else.
After what seemed like an eternity of slogging through the palace she finally reached the laundry and located Morgana's favourite dress. The slinky maroon gown that exposed her shoulders and made her look like an ethereal goddess instead of a human being. Gwen didn't think any garment in the world would allow her to even hold a candle to her mistress in this dress, and that was a good thing, Olaf still needed a lot of sweet talking before he'd be entirely at ease with Camelot.
She draped the dress delicately across her arms, careful not to leave a single wrinkle or mark, and started the seemingly interminable trek back to her mistress, her mind filled with images of her standing next to Morgana, wondering exactly how enormous the gap in beauty was. What did Arthur see when he looked at them? Did he notice Morgana? They were supposed to marry, though Uther had long since discarded that idea, but did the prince find her beautiful? She had seen his looks pass right through the raven-haired beauty to her before.
Gwen was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she almost didn't see the king before colliding with him. She stopped so suddenly that her equilibrium was thrown out of balance and her shoulder collided with the stone wall. Gwen bit her cheek against the pain and offered the king a curtsey as best she could with arms full.
"Your highness," she greeted.
"Gwen, could I ask you to find my son for me? He seems to have disappeared again." The king seemed impatient and distracted. Gwen bit her lip again, this time to stifle a smile, it was just like Arthur to disappear for some reason or the other when he was expected.
"Of course, my Lord." She curtseyed again, cursing internally. Not only had she managed to disobey Morgana and get hooked into another duty, but her day was getting longer by the minute. The king's orders always came first, she couldn't delay, so she managed to waylay another servant, passing off Morgana's dress and the message that she would attend her at the feast. She still had chores to do, even assuming Arthur was not hiding out in some impossible place she wouldn't have time to help her Lady dress.
More than likely Merlin had whisked him off on some whimsical errand, or was forcing the crown prince to stand over him to supervise some chore he had done inadequately. Of course, the first place to look when searching for a detained Arthur was always the stables. Why did they have to be so far away? She felt by now that she was wading through waist high mud, her legs were so tired.
She made her way to the stables, just behind the palace, and sighed gratefully as she heard a familiar voice yelling impatiently. Sure enough Arthur was taking Merlin through the motions of saddling a horse as if he was a small, irritating child learning for the first time. Gwen paused a moment, the aching in her joints momentarily forgotten at the sight of her friends bickering. She used to hate the bully in Arthur, now she wasn't sure there was any part of him she didn't love. Like. She liked him. This wasn't love.
It took the two men a while to notice her standing there, smiling at them. Merlin smiled back, causing Arthur to look around. He gave her that heart-stopping look and her breath caught in her throat. How did her do that to her every single time? Maybe it was just the pain and longing in her own heart that she saw echoed in his face.
"My Lord," she curtseyed. "The king is looking for you, it is almost time for the feast."
"Of course, thank you, Guinevere."
She couldn't say anything else. Every time he said her name it made the blood rush to her face. She turned away, fighting the urge to press him against the stable walls and kiss him just like that day in the tent, just like her kiss had once made things right between them, even if it was just for a fleeting moment. There was no hope for that now.
"Guinevere." Arthur's voice stopped her.
"Would you pick some roses for Morgana on your way back? She's been troubled lately, I think she'd appreciate them."
How was she supposed to say no to him? "Of course, my Lord."
Five minutes. She would have given anything for five minutes to herself. A wave of dizziness ran through her, but she managed to keep from stumbling until she was out of sight. Maybe it would be best to just let another servant attend to Morgana for the evening, she would be no good to anyone if she fainted. She'd just run up for the last load of dirty linen for the laundry and she'd excuse herself for the evening if Morgana was still there, she'd understand.
But first she had roses to collect.
"What was that all about?"
Arthur pulled his overshirt on, trying to tune out Merlin's babbling. He had a lot to make up for to Olaf and he had to start by looking presentable. "What was what about?"
"Sending Gwen to get roses."
"Morgana needs some cheering up."
"Sure she does."
Of course Merlin would read too much into it, he always did when it came to Gwen. Not that he wasn't usually right, but Arthur wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that. Surely the other knights didn't have to put up with constant jibes from their servants.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Arthur pulled his chainmail shirt over his head, trying not to get too dragged in, nothing pleased Merlin more than getting a rise out of him over Gwen.
"Nothing. Nothing. Just, you know, sending her to the other side of the palace on a totally inane errand seems a little strange."
"It's none of your business."
Merlin perked up. "Oh, so there is an ulterior motive?"
How did that ape always manage to turn his words against him? "No, there is no ulterior motive, and even if there was, I wouldn't need to explain it to you. Now help me with my cloak."
He stood still, letting his manservant arrange the voluminous red cloak around his shoulders. He could almost feel the smug grin radiating off Merlin, and seriously considered putting him in the stocks overnight. That wouldn't accomplish anything, he'd tried it before. There were times when confiding in his manservant seemed like such a good idea, and there were times when it was a very big mistake.
The crown settled on Arthur's head and he looked in the mirror. Presentable, considering the help he had. He swept from the room, not giving Merlin a chance to continue his line of questioning. If there happened to be a reason for him getting Guinevere out of the main passages of the palace, then it certainly wasn't any of his business.
"Where are we going?" Merlin asked. "The feast is that way."
"Yes, I know my own palace, Merlin. We're meeting with Morgana and her escort."
"Since when does Morgana need an escort to a feast in her own palace aside from Gwen?"
As he'd been dreading, their walk along the mezzanine answered Merlin's question very quickly. Olaf's knights were already convening in the great hall. "Because Morgana requested his presence with her. I believe she is intending to surprise Guinevere."
"Is that Lancelot?" Merlin asked, unable to conceal the delight in his voice. Arthur scowled down at the approaching man.
"It seems that he rescued the Lady Vivian from a group of bandits while she was travelling some time back and Olaf granted him a knighthood."
"That's amazing! Why didn't you tell me?"
"I only just found out about it myself." Arthur tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He had no quarrel with Lancelot and was genuinely glad that his dreams were coming true. It was just his general proximity that was a problem.
"And would this have anything to do with you sending Gwen to the other end of the grounds?"
Arthur rounded on his servant. "Merlin, what have I told you about bringing this up?"
"That... you'll kill me?" Merlin asked with a tentative wince.
"That's it." Arthur agreed.
"Sire!" Lancelot's unmistakeable voice rang out. He quickly ascended the stairs, catching up to the other two men and bowing deeply.
"Lancelot," Arthur greeted with as much warmth as he could muster. "We shouldn't keep Morgana waiting."
He led the way, allowing the two friends to catch up without his interference. He just hoped that Guinevere was still out in the gardens gathering roses. She'd be furious with him once she figured it out, but she wouldn't say anything. She'd just avoid his eyes, silently fuming, curtsey and say 'My Lord'. He had to admit that he was half hoping that this would get him one of her lectures.
He missed her lectures. Missed the awkward little smile when she realised she'd said too much and silently asked for his understanding. Missed the day after when she would try to pretend nothing had happened and fail miserably. Mostly he missed how incredibly hard she made him work for her approval. He always knew that when she gave him praise, she meant it.
Arthur kept checking around him as they walked, listening for her footsteps, hoping not to catch a glimpse of her on the way back to Morgana's chamber. Maybe he'd catch a whisper of her voice without that hardline formality in it. It was a fine line to walk between wishing she was there and praying she wasn't.
Everything inside him told him this was childish. If she did still have feelings for Lancelot then keeping her from being alone with him for one night wasn't going to make a difference, and would hurt her. But Arthur had more servants willing to tell him that he was a prat than any other noble. And tonight, he decided, he was a prat. She didn't want anything to do with him, but that didn't mean he had to concede defeat graciously, or at all, until she married someone else.
Married. The thought struck him ill, it felt like ice ran through his veins.
"Lancelot!" Morgana met them outside her chamber, both hands extended toward their new visitor, who took them and gracefully kissed her fingers. The chivalrous cad. "Or I should say Sir Lancelot now."
"Indeed, my Lady, it is a pleasure to see you again."
Arthur knew how to turn on charm like that, he'd done it plenty of times. The thing that irked him was that Lancelot was so sincere. He wasn't turning on the charm. He was just charming. Not that it was hard to be charming around Morgana in that dress, she knew full well what it did to any man in her line of sight.
He noted that the girl who stood behind Morgana was an unfamiliar face, just another one of the servants. Guinevere would give him such a scolding if she ever heard him say that out loud.
No, a voice in his chest said, she wouldn't, not anymore.
He wasn't the only one to notice the missing member.
"Is Gwen not joining us tonight?" Lancelot asked, offering his arm to Morgana.
She took the offered arm and they started to make their way downstairs. "She should be with us soon, apparently Uther had something that needed tending to."
Merlin's snicker didn't go unnoticed by Arthur, who shot him a death glare. The young man instantly put on a straight face.
"That's a shame," said Lancelot. "I haven't seen her in a long time."
"Yes, it's rather unusual, she's always so punctual. I think she's been feeling a little under the weather today."
Merlin snickered again and this time Arthur's glare was more meaningful.
"Right," Merlin said. "I'll just go see if I can find out what's keeping her."
Arthur nodded his approval and Merlin raced off toward the gardens.
Roses. Gwen huffed, arranging the flowers in a vase. It was Merlin's job to cater to Arthur's whims, not hers. She was late enough already, there was no way she could avoid the feast now, there was no time to find someone to replace her.
She held her forehead, leaning against the wall. The dizzy spells were coming a little more often now, she'd have to be careful not to lose her footing and embarrass the royal family. She was, after all, 'Camelot's finest'. She barked out a laugh at the memory before the pain of what followed made her choke.
Just one more chore and she could join Morgana at the feast, spending the night doing her best impression of a wine dispensing statue. It wouldn't be so terrible. She piled up a wicker basket with linen and clothing that her mistress had discarded, using the weight as a centre of gravity to keep her balance.
One more trip down those stairs. She let out a long breath, mentally and physically preparing herself, then beginning the strange waddle of a woman holding a large weight and going downstairs. If Arthur were here he'd insist on carrying it for her, probably with one hand, or on his shoulder.
She caught her breath. He wasn't there. She had been the one to set the boundaries. No more thinking about it.
Gwen took another step, awkwardly balanced between stairs, and another dizzy spell hit. She tried to hold out a hand to balance herself against the wall, even if she dropped all the laundry, but found in that split second that her hand was caught in a sheet.
She just had enough time to realise that something very bad was about to happen and then she tumbled.
The stairs rushed up at her, slamming her bodyweight into her shoulder, then the ridge of one stair into her side, then her elbow, wicker breaking under the weight and piercing her skin. It didn't happen in slow motion, she didn't even have time to register one pain before the next came.
It was just one whirl of pain and light and colour until it finally rested on blackness.