Pain. Pain was all she could feel, radiating all over her body. Her face, her jaw and cheekbone screamed. Her mouth opened but she couldn't draw in enough air to scream. She tried to move her arms, only to find agony shooting up into her shoulders. She could feel tears welling in her eyes although her chest had no strength to bring forth a sob.
Gwen opened her eyes, the world was a jumble of ash stone and ivory lace, her eyes wouldn't focus. A mewling sound escaped the back of her throat. What was going on? The breath finally escaped her lungs, a low hiss of pain. Why did her chest hurt so badly? It felt as though she'd been run through with a sword.
"Gwen!" A voice, hazy and indistinct, cut through her pain. "Gaius! Gwen's awake!"
There were hands on her, lifting her, opening her mouth while she still struggled to scream. Something glass was forced between her teeth and she felt a cool sludge trickle down her throat. She choked, coughed, tried to swallow, couldn't urge the liquid either way. Strong hands rubbed her back, trying to ease the convulsions.
"Gwen, can you hear me?"
Why won't they kill me? She was yelling with her mind, begging for someone to end this agony. Her crushed face was so painful, it filled her whole world, turned her vision white. Why were they torturing her like this? None of the figures that drifted in and out of her vision showed any mercy.
Arms wrapped around her, pulling her close to a warm chest, cradling her head. There were reassurances whispered in her ear although she couldn't make out the words. She wanted to tell the man to stop, that the way her jaw rested against his collarbone only made the pain worse, but every word, every breath stuttered and fell in her throat. The only sound she could make were increasingly desperate moans.
"Come on, Gwen, breathe."
Every second the agony worsened, until the pain in her face spread throughout her entire body, her back arched involuntarily, spasms ripping through her limbs. How was she supposed to survive this? Were they trying to torture her to death?
Then, like a switch was flicked, the pain disappeared, replaced by warmth throughout her body and a pleasant, heavy feeling in her chest. Gwen gasped, filling her starving lungs with air, the relief falling over her, her body collapsing like a puppet with cut strings. She lay against the warm man, panting, trying to make sense of the world around her.
Slowly the world came into focus. The first thing she registered were Morgana's dark, concerned eyes, red and puffy, hovering near her face. She had been crying. Gaius stood above her, assessing, analysing, as if he expected the pain to return at any moment.
And the arms, she found his hands, wrapped around her waist. Coarse, worn hands of a commoner. Gwen looked up, almost instinctively knowing who held her.
He smiled down at her, his beautiful face lit with pure joy. "Gwen, I feared you'd never wake."
He leaned down and pressed a chaste kiss to her lips. He was back. She had so many questions, but right then all she could comprehend was that he was there, arms around her, fingers entwined with hers. He was safe, no longer fighting for his life.
Suddenly she was pulled from his arms and into Morgana's. The woman held her like a sister, crushing her close. Gwen couldn't believe that the pain didn't return, her whole body felt nothing but warm and light. She returned the embrace, trying to comfort her mistress although she was still in shock.
"What happened?" Gwen asked as soon as she could extract herself.
"I'm afraid you took quite a tumble down the stairs," Gaius said. "Hopefully that tonic I gave you will keep the pain abated for some time."
Gwen laughed, then touched her fingers to her lips. Why was she laughing?
"I'm sorry, I..." She trailed off, distracted by the feel of Lancelot's hands, which had found hers again. She ran her fingertips across his knuckle, the feel of it was fascinating. She stopped her roving fingers, clasping her hands together. "I don't seem to be myself."
"It's the medicine," Gaius said. "It kills the pain, but I wouldn't recommend attempting any strenuous thinking."
Gwen laughed again, leaning back against her knight. Everything felt so comfortable, the hard chest behind her, the warm bed under her, the soft blankets that covered her. A drowsiness settled over her. Part of her disliked her lack of mental faculty, but a larger part was still reeling with relief from the pain.
"Where's Arthur?" The question seemed to spring from her lips without her prior knowledge, and she instantly realised how inappropriate it was. "Not that... he'd be here. I just thought because..."
"Arthur has been quarantined, to prevent the spread of the fever through the knights of Camelot." Morgana saved her from her awkwardness.
"He's ill as well?"
"No, Gaius simply thought it an appropriate precaution."
Gwen felt her eyes grow heavy, the drug overcoming her. Lancelot stroked her face, the rhythm lulling her deeper into weariness. She had feared so much for him after his departure, to see him safe, welcome once again in Camelot, there for her, was more calming than she could have imagined.
"Sleep, Gwen," he whispered in her ear. "I'll be here when you awake."
How long had it been? Arthur sat against his headboard, staring at the wall. One day, he guessed, as it was almost sunset. 24 hours isolated from everyone but Merlin, who hadn't visited since lunch. 24 hours of not knowing Guinevere's condition. And if she'd woken up, 24 hours for her to fall in love with Lancelot all over again.
The favour she had given him before their first kiss was wound around his hand. It used to smell like her, soap, linen and coal, but he had spent so many long hours holding it close that now it only smelled of him. Now it was just a token, a ward against the pain that threatened. She had enforced the formality between them for six long months, but at least he knew at that time, she had cared for him. If the pretty blush that graced her face every time they spoke was any indication, she still did.
She was one of the bravest women he'd ever met, but at the same time so shy. He could sympathise. If he was asked to take on every knight in the kingdom he'd do it without hesitation, but the idea that soon he'd have to confront her, ask her if she had tired of waiting for him, had him so scared that his stomach tied in knots. He could still remember the look on Gwen's face when she smiled at Lancelot, holding his hand. He had thought that smile to be just for him, but he had been wrong. And he could still feel his heart breaking.
And now Lancelot had made it perfectly clear that he intended to court her. How could Arthur object? He had made his feelings to Gwen as transparent as he could, he wanted her to be his queen, and she had refused him. Given time, he was sure he could prove to her that there was no other for him, but suddenly his time had run out. Her old flame had come to claim her, there would be no objection to the match.
Arthur closed his eyes. Guinevere loved him. He was sure of it. The way she blushed and stuttered in his presence, the gentle sighs, the beautiful smiles, she hadn't given up on him. He just wasn't sure how to tell her that he was waiting for her, as well. She had apologised, in her own way, for doubting him before, but it was so hard to cling to that while they were separated.
Every second seemed like a torment he couldn't endure. He had waking nightmares, hearing the crack of bones and cold stone connecting with soft flesh. Copper skin jaundiced with fever. Her mouth opening in silent screams, some anguish he couldn't see or hear or fight.
The physician would pay for this. He'd pay for every second Arthur had been locked away from her.
Arthur grimaced. Truthfully he was to blame, he should have held his tongue. Guinevere would have given him a tongue lashing if she heard him speak to Gaius that way, the old man was right, her sickbed was not the place for an argument with Lancelot, even if he had started it.
A knock at the door didn't even make Arthur look up.
Merlin placed a plate on the table, still he didn't look away. "Come on, now, you haven't eaten all day, you must be starving."
His manservant's face popped into his field of vision, his naturally dazed expression intact. He waved his hand in front of Arthur's face until he received a pointed glare. "I'm not hungry."
"Cheer up, I have good news. Gwen's awake."
"What?" Arthur sat forward. "When did she wake? How is her condition?"
Merlin shrugged, avoiding eye contact. "A couple of hours ago, she's fine, be better in no time."
"Merlin, you're a horrible liar," Arthur growled. He was in no mood for this. His manservant looked torn, as if afraid of his reaction to the truth.
"She's in pain. A lot of pain. But Gaius has given her a draught, she can't feel any of it right now. And the worst of the illness has passed, she's just a bit... well dizzy, kind of... phlegmy. Bit of a cough."
"How much pain?"
Merlin glanced at his feet. "Unbearable without Gaius' strongest potion."
Arthur closed his eyes, his chest constricting. "And Lancelot?"
"Gaius just sent him and Morgana out for the night so she could get some sleep."
"He's been tending to her all day." It wasn't a question.
"Yes." Merlin watched him, as if searching his face for a sign of distress. "Are you okay?"
"What do you think?" Arthur muttered. "I'm living a double nightmare. Guinevere's going to be taken away from me, either by sickness or by... by..."
"You don't know that. She loves you."
"What does it matter?" Arthur slammed his fist against the wall, not feeling the pain. "I can offer her nothing. Lancelot is right, I'm not thinking of her, I'm thinking of myself."
"She wants the same thing."
"For how long?" Arthur shut his eyes, trying to will the words' truth away. "Soon she will realise that he can comfort her when I cannot. He can sit beside her while she's ill, run to her side when she's injured. He can give her a husband, a family. Not some distant hope."
"Then make it more than that! Tell your father, his punishment may be harsh, but there's only so much he can do."
Arthur laughed without humour. "Yes, like making Gwen disappear, never to be seen again. Or maybe he'll take the direct approach and simply have her burned at the stake for enchanting me."
"You think he'd kill her?"
"If he thought I'd truly marry her." Arthur scowled, this was too much to deal with all at once. For now he just wanted to see her alright. "Just... get me out of here."
"How am I supposed to do that?"
"Come up with something!"
Arthur didn't want to ask any questions, but he knew that when he said that to Merlin, it was as good as done. The boy nodded and left the room. Sometimes plausible deniability was the best option.
He paced, waiting for the telltale sound the the lock on his door opening, telling him that his manservant had succeeded, but the time seemed to pass in aeons. He felt as if he should have been able to hear her scream from the pain, like his absence in such a moment was unforgivable. He should have been able to hold her, help Gaius administer the draught. He could have told her that it would be alright, stroked her hair and face, done something to soothe the pain.
There was nothing to be done, he could spent the rest of his life here going over his regrets. It was more important to take action, try to salvage what he could. He had to stay strong if he was to survive the coming weeks, and he had to have faith that Gwen would make the right decision. Not that he was completely sure what that was. The decision he wanted her to make wasn't necessarily one he could live with, in time.
A tap on his window made the prince jump. He opened the glass pained window outward to see Merlin's grinning face.
"What are you doing?"
"You wanted out." Merlin wheezed with the effort of holding onto the rope that kept him suspended outside the window. Arthur looked up, he had tied the rope to the highest battlement, granting him precarious access to the entire south face of the palace.
"I didn't know you were fond of spelunking."
"Can we crack jokes when I'm not hanging off the side of a castle? Morgana's chamber is up one floor and to the left. I'll be going now."
Arthur gave his manservant a nod before he slipped out of sight, down the rope. Arthur smiled, only Merlin could concoct this solution. Only he could turn heading up to Morgana's chamber into a daring expedition.
The prince leaned out the window, letting his full weight settle onto the rope, which was disturbingly lightweight. Each handful he grabbed felt like it might snap the rope, letting him plummet to the ground. It wouldn't kill him, but he had the feeling Gaius would have him confined to his chamber for a month when he was finished setting broken bones and healing bruises.
Gwen's window was clearly in his view and he felt weightless. He could have climbed a mile if it meant getting to her side. As he came level with her window he swung his weight outward, letting him scale sidewards. Morgana's decadent bay windows were too large to miss, and he slid one pane open, allowing him to slip inside.
The bed was laid out, ever familiar, in Morgana's ivory bedspread. A bunch of flowers graced the bedside, candles blew in the breeze. The smell of some kind of fragrant oil wafted through the air, permeating the hangings and trappings. It all seemed so superfluous, too frivolous for the simple beauty that lay at its centre. Arthur leaned against the bedpost, watching her. She'd look so beautiful with ribbons in her hair.
She still looked unwell, but there was a marked improvement from the last time he'd seen her. Her skin was pale, but the fever that had taken her seemed to have abated. The bruises around her face were fading. Gaius had been right, she was recovering, if slowly. It still stopped his heart to see her like this.
Arthur sat at the bedside, taking one of Gwen's hands in his own. He remembered the last time this had happened, the positions had been reversed, her words of faith and courage penetrating his deep sleep.
He had no such words to offer her, everything was uncertain.
"I don't know if I'm worthy of you," he murmured against her hand. "Lancelot wants you for his own, and I don't know how I'm supposed to ask anything else of you. I can offer you no promise, except that my heart will be yours for as I long as I live, and I wish that was enough."
He sighed. He wasn't the type to pour his heart out to someone, even a sleeping Guinevere. Even the things left unsaid passed between them seamlessly, he didn't need to make a fool of himself by telling her how things were, she knew, she probably had a lot more insight than him on the subject.
"I sat by and watched when your father died. I... I nearly killed you, nearly watched you burn at the stake for an act you didn't commit. If it hadn't been for you I would have done the same to Gaius." Arthur took a deep breath. The shame of those moments still haunted him. "I look back on these things as... mistakes of the worst kind. Mistakes I would make again, if it weren't for you. I don't know what I've done to earn your forgiveness, but without you to guide me I don't know if I'll ever deserve it."
Gwen groaned in her sleep, her hand clenching tightly around his. Arthur pressed a kiss against her fingers, his other hand brushing through her hair. A frown creased her pretty face, and for a moment he thought she had woken up, but she settled back against the pillows.
"I remember how you looked at him." Arthur let out a half-bitter laugh. "You made an ass out of Merlin. He had been telling me just that morning how you were sure to wait for me. I don't think he's ever forgiven you for that. I never blamed you."
He could still remember the exact sensation of his heart breaking. The way it felt like he had been punched, leaving a massive crack down the centre of his chest. The blood hardened in his veins, every heartbeat working against crystallised flesh. But it was true, he had never blamed her. He would have given anything to find someone he could love as much as her, to end their mutual suffering.
"If you have to be with him, I'll understand." His voice broke and he brought a hand to his mouth. "I won't stop loving you, but I'd rather you were happy."
Gwen moaned again, rolling onto her side. Her hand tightened again, she was surprisingly strong. Her knees pulled up near her chest and she started mumbling, words falling incomprehensibly from her lips. He leaned over to see her face, which was scrunched up, in pain or concentration. To ward off her nightmare.
"Guinevere," he murmured, shaking her shoulder.
She didn't respond to his urging, her words growing louder but no more lucid. A sob escaped her lips and he realised tears were streaming down her face. He called her name again, this time louder. She sobbed, her hands clenching, reaching for something she couldn't find. She cried out.
Gwen's body extended suddenly, causing Arthur to jump back, eyes wide with concern. He didn't know what was happening, how could he help her? She wailed, back arching unnaturally. Her fists beat against the mattress until she grasped one of the pillows to her face, muffling tormented screams.
Arthur grabbed her, trying to stop the weakened muscles that overstretched, spasmed and flailed. She would cause injury to herself.
"Arthur!" It was half a scream, half a sob, and he pressed her against his chest, binding her arms against her to stop her from hurting herself. She cried out his name again, fingers searching frantically.
"I'm here," he whispered into her ear, but it only seemed to increase her distress. Finally, he commanded, "Guinevere!"
Her body stilled in his arms. Slowly her hands unclenched and she looked around. The moment her eyes hit his he felt all the breath leave him. Her beautiful doe eyes were wide, confused, and her mouth parted with unsaid words. Her look told him everything and he wanted nothing more than to kiss her, to prove that he was there and he wasn't going anywhere. Instead he let one hand weave through her hair, keeping her steady, anchoring her to him.
"Arthur," she whispered. Her stare penetrated him, took down all his defences. She held his gaze for a moment longer, then her eyes went wide, a strangled gasp escaping her. Tears welled up in the corner of her eyes. "My tonic."
He didn't ask questions and located a bottle of blue liquid on the nightstand. He pulled the stopper and helped her drink. Her breath came in choking gasps and she fell back against the pillows, staring at the ceiling, silent tears streaming down the sides of her face.
"Guinevere," Arthur said, wanting to offer her some kind of comfort, not knowing what to do.
"It will work in a moment," she assured him, her words slurred as if her mouth wasn't working properly. He looked at the bruises down her jaw. They must have been very painful, he wouldn't have been surprised if the bone was cracked.
It was so like her to comfort him when she was in this much pain, making sure that he didn't worry. He sighed, stroking her hair, not wanting to move her for fear of making the pain worse with a misplaced touch.
It seemed like an aeon before Gwen's muscles loosened, her eyes closing and a dopey smile drifting across her lips.
"Guinevere? Are you alright?"
She smiled broadly, a smile of genuine joy. "I'm quite fine."
"Are you sure?" Her grin was somewhat contagious and he couldn't help the corner of his mouth pulling up. There was no reason for her to be so happy after waking up in the middle of the night to such agony.
"There is one thing I could ask for." She sat up, leaning closer as if to whisper a secret to him.
Arthur leaned closer to her. "Anything."
Guinevere leaned so close to him that their noses were almost touching and Arthur felt his heart speed up. She gently pressed her lips against his and he drew in a great breath. He responded, her lips working against his slowly becoming more feverish, her arms wrapping around his neck, her fingers finding their way into his hair.
Her lips parted, allowing their tongues to tentatively touch, tasting, testing. Arthur wrapped his arms around her, bringing her close. He had dreamed of this moment for months, he'd never imagined she would be so bold as to initiate it. The way she moaned from the back of her throat sent shocks through him, taking him higher. He let one hand lay flat against the tender flesh of her neck, his fingertips teasing behind her ear. She was so soft, so beautiful, and she was pressed up against him like her life depended on him.
Every moment he held her, it felt like his heart was healing, sensation returning to necrotic flesh. The hardened veins inside his chest softened, the breaks stitching back together. Cradling her against him, her mouth hot and giving against his, he felt like he was finally aware of how deep his wounds ran, only enlightened upon the first touches of recovery. For the first time in six months his blood was running freely.
She moaned his name into his lips and he lowered her back onto the bed, pressing kisses along her uninjured jawline. Her knee brushed against his hip and Arthur had to stop to gasp for air, realising what a compromising position they were in. Her half-lidded eyes spoke of desire, her back arching, pressing her hips up into his. He let his eyes trace her, from her wild, scattered hair, the delicate curve of her neck, her...
Arthur stopped dead. The white shift she had been wearing was stained, fresh, red blood running a line down her front. Guinevere followed his gaze and sighed.
"Oh, no," she said, the same way she might have looked on a spilt drink. "My stitches."
"For my chest," she non-explained, sitting up with a childish pout on her face. She prodded her chest experimentally.
"Gaius didn't tell me that you had injured yourself there." Arthur frowned deeply. The physician had given him an incomplete report. And Gwen couldn't feel it, she looked like she was examining the wound on another person, still tittering as she poked and prodded. "Gwen, look at me."
"Mm?" she asked, wide eyed. He suddenly felt like he was talking to a child, her attention wandering away from him unless he kept her focussed.
"What happened to your chest?"
She shook her head dismissively. "It was just the... uh... the basket. It broke on my chest and Gaius said there was a... an infection, that's it. He said I wasn't to worry or tell anyone, especially not Prince Arthur."
Arthur sighed heavily. No wonder she had thrown herself at him like that, whatever was relieving her pain had also taken away her mental capacity. And now she had forgotten about him, absolutely enthralled by her fingernails, while he was still burning for her, the warmth of her body still impressed against his own.
Dammit, if she had stitches that had broken, he'd have to get Gaius, there would be no hiding the fact that he'd disobeyed orders. Not that he didn't want to say a few words to the old man, telling everyone not to worry, that kind of infection could easily kill her.
"Gwen. Guinevere." It took her a moment to look up at him. "Are there guards outside your door?"
She frowned in concentration for a moment, then nodded happily. "Mmhmm."
Arthur spoke very slowly. "Okay, I'm going to leave now, and I want you to call the guards. Tell them that your stitches have broken. Can you do that for me?"
Gwen nodded again.
"Good, and I want you to do one more thing, and this is very important, so listen closely. Do not tell anyone I was here. Can you do that?"
Gwen saluted mockingly, grinning again. Arthur pressed his lips against her forehead, giving her one last light hug before slipping out the window. He hung from the rope, waiting until he heard her call out for the guards before sliding back down to his own window.