Thanks for the reviews so far, this is where it (hopefully) starts to get fun...
Gwen supposed there were certain things that should be preying on her mind at that moment – for one, she was about to attempt to join the army, a crime punishable by death if she was found out... that should probably be a worry. It was early afternoon now; her father would be sitting at home, grieving that his daughter had run away. Gwen knew her father would be devastated by what she'd done, and she felt bad for causing him pain... but that wasn't exactly preying on her mind either. Neither was her hunger, her tiredness, or the discomfort of the bandages she had wrapped round her chest to bind her breasts.
No; the thing that Gwen was most concerned about, as she stood on a wooded outcrop overlooking the Hinwic camp, was her hair.
Or, rather, her lack thereof.
It was obvious logic – if she was going to pass as a man, her hair had to go. She'd taken a pair of scissors to it before she'd left home the night before, and now it was shorn to just a couple of inches short all over. Gwen had barely been able to look in the mirror after she'd done it; it wasn't that she was a particularly vain person, because lord knows she wasn't, but it was her hair. All of it. It felt like losing a limb – her head felt lighter and yet she could still feel the phantom weight of it on her shoulders. Now, staring down at the dozens of tents and timber fortifications that made up Hinwic, Gwen couldn't help but feel completely exposed, and inexplicably desperately missed her hair.
She sighed and turned back to her horse, Ama. Gwen had taken her saddle and pack-bags off to give her a bit of a rest – they'd made good time to the camp, and could afford to take a moment before... joining up.
What was she doing? This was crazy.
Gwen shook her head to clear it of such thoughts – this was for her father. She just had to remember that, and everything would be fine. As long as he stayed safe, nothing else mattered. She walked over to the discarded pack-bags and triple checked the armour and clothes inside; the armour and the shirts and jackets were her father's, but she was wearing her own work breeches and boots. Everything was in order – not that she would have been able to go back for anything if it wasn't. She was dressed in one of her father's shirts and jackets, both of which were too big on her but not so huge as to look ridiculous. Her conscription notice was tucked away in her inside pocket.
It was time to think strategy. She was here; she was dressed as a man; now she just had to get in without anyone suspecting the truth.
She cleared her throat nervously and faced a tree. "Good afternoon – I am here to sign in," she said, with as much force behind her voice as she could manage. It turned out not to be a lot – even she could hear her voice trembling. She cleared her throat again. "I am here to join the army," she exclaimed, grasping the pummel of her sword. "I pledge my sword to the –oh!" Her sword got stuck when it was only half out of its scabbard, and Gwen lost her balance and fell forward into the tree. Luckily her hands came up just in time to stop her face smashing into the trunk.
She pushed her sword back in and turned around to lean her back against the tree trunk. Ama was staring at her, probably wondering why her mistress was acting so strangely, and Gwen sighed, her head dropping into her hands. "It's going to take a miracle to get me into the army!"
"You could say that again."
Gwen gasped and jumped to her feet, looking for the source of the voice. How had she not realised she wasn't alone? Oh god... she wasn't alone. That was it, she was caught out and she hadn't even made it as far as the camp! Gwen's eyes fell on the speaker, standing about ten feet away from her, next to a large elm. He was watching her with a wide-eyed expression that she knew only too well.
Her jaw dropped. "Merlin? Is that you?" She couldn't help but smile despite her surprise – she hadn't seen him in so long, and suddenly –there he was!
Merlin raised an eyebrow, and didn't smile back. "Gwen," he said in a clipped, exaggerated tone that clearly spoke of his displeasure of finding her there.
Gwen's smile faded and she shook her head. "What are you doing here?" She asked.
Merlin let out a disbelieving 'huh!' sound, and walked over to her. "Me? What are you doing here?" He demanded.
Gwen bit her lip and looked down at her poorly-fitting clothes. "They tried to conscript my father," she told Merlin truthfully. She looked up at him, her eyes pleading with him to understand. "I couldn't... I couldn't let him come."
Merlin's face cleared and he looked at her in wonder. "You're trying to take your father's place."
Gwen nodded. "Yes."
"Are you crazy?" Merlin exclaimed, throwing his hands up. "Women aren't allowed in the army!"
"I know that," Gwen said, rolling her eyes. "I'm pretending to be a man."
Merlin's jaw dropped. "What?"
Gwen took a step closer to her childhood friend. "Merlin, I have to do this," she said seriously.
"No, you don't," said Merlin, shaking his head. "You can't! It's the death penalty for a woman who impersonates a soldier –"
"I know," Gwen said solemnly. She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin, looking Merlin square in the eye. "It's a risk I have to take."
Merlin rolled his eyes and turned away, starting to pace. Gwen watched him for a moment, remembering the many times she had seen him do exactly this in the past. Seeing Merlin was like opening a window to her youth again – he had been her best friend, and it hadn't been easy to smile and wave goodbye when he'd gone to Camelot the year before. It wasn't the most perfect of reunions, but she was glad to see him nonetheless. She wondered at it though – shouldn't he be in Camelot? Hunith had told Gwen that Merlin was Prince Arthur's manservant now.
A horrible, sneaking suspicion entered Gwen's mind.
"What are you doing here?" She asked him.
Merlin stopped pacing and turned to face her again. "Prince Arthur is training the new recruits."
Gwen swallowed. Oh no. She'd never seen him, of course, but she'd heard tell of the crown prince; heard that he was the best warrior the kingdom had ever seen – brave, fiercely loyal, a great leader... and the king's son. If anyone was likely to take her duplicity especially badly, it was him. "Oh," she said after a moment.
Merlin nodded. "Yeah, and if he finds out that you're –"
"He won't," Gwen said quickly, trying to assure herself as much as Merlin.
Merlin shook his head silently, staring at her, and Gwen instantly felt bad for the position she was putting him in. Merlin wouldn't give her up – she knew he would never do a thing like that – but that meant he was going to have to lie to the Prince about her, now that he knew the truth. Gwen tried to look properly contrite, as he was probably thinking the same thing.
"What have you done to your hair?" Merlin asked suddenly.
Gwen's hand automatically flew up to touch the short strands, and was once again filled with a horrible sense of loss. She shrugged it off, literally. "Well I couldn't very well go in with it long, could I?" She said, trying to make light of the change.
Merlin frowned, and then shook his head. "It's not enough," he said. "You look... you look so girly."
Gwen shifted uncomfortably. "Well, you know I'm a girl, so of course you see it..."
"No – look at how you're standing!" Merlin exclaimed, waving a hand at her.
Gwen frowned. "What?"
"Well, for starters – don't clasp your hands like that; fold your arms or something," Merlin said, pointing at her. Gwen looked down and saw that she had her hands clasped demurely in front of her. She gave Merlin a sheepish look and folded her arms.
Merlin nodded. "That's better," he said. "And... put your feet further apart, don't be so... dainty."
Gwen looked down again, not really sure what Merlin meant, but obediently stood with her feet further apart. "I didn't realise I was being dainty," she said.
"Yeah, well, be careful, it's a dead giveaway," said Merlin seriously. "And... scratch a lot. And spit. Things like that."
Gwen once again ran a hand through her cropped hair and nodded. "Thanks Merlin."
Merlin was still frowning. "What about your voice? You definitely sound like a girl."
Ah. She hadn't really though of that. Gwen thought for a moment, and then cleared her throat. "How about this?" she said, in an affected deeper tone.
Merlin blinked at her. "Isn't that your impression of Will?" He asked.
"Yes," Gwen said sheepishly.
Merlin's mouth twitched. "You know, despite how insane you are being here, it's good to see you again," he said.
Gwen nodded, her own lips twitching. "You too – I missed you," she said. Merlin shook his head but then quickly darted forward and hugged her. Gwen grinned and hugged him back, and saw Merlin was smiling too when they pulled apart.
His smile disappeared immediately.
"Don't smile," he said sternly.
"Your smile, it's way too... pretty," Merlin said.
Gwen chuckled. "Always a charmer," she said playfully.
Merlin shook his head. "I'm serious Gwen, don't," he said.
Gwen had never seen Merlin look so serious – the boy she knew never looked serious about anything. She realised in that moment that a lot must have happed to her friend in the year they'd been apart – somewhere in that time, he'd grown up. Gwen swallowed nervously and nodded. "I won't," she promised.
Hinwic was a good hour's walk away, and so Gwen was able to learn some of what had happened to Merlin on the way there. Merlin barely paused for breath the entire time, and Gwen suspected that he missed have someone to talk to – someone who knew his secret, that is. Gwen had known about Merlin's ability for basically as long as she could remember, and it was the only thing she'd ever kept from her father. When she'd been very young, she'd not given much thought to Merlin's magic, it was just a part of who he is. As she'd grown older, she had begun to realise the danger Merlin could be in if he was ever discovered – magic was forbidden in Camelot, punishable by death. Even in an outlying village like Ealdor there was no telling what might happen, and so everyone who knew about Merlin had kept very quiet. Gwen had been extremely worried by the idea of Merlin going to Camelot, the very centre of the anti-magic regime, but Hunith had insisted it was for the best, and Merlin had been so excited. In her heart, Gwen had known that Merlin was too special to be stuck in somewhere like Ealdor all his life – he was meant to do great things.
And it seemed he had, though no one knew it but his guardian, Gaius – and now her.
"So how is it being Prince Arthur's servant?" Gwen asked after a while. Merlin had mentioned Arthur so many times in his stories that she felt she had to ask about him.
"Hard work," Merlin said. "But fine – I mean, since I'm his personal manservant I'm pretty high up the servant hierarchy."
"There's a servant's hierarchy?"
"Oh yeah. You wouldn't believe how much backbiting goes on in the kitchens!"
Gwen laughed. "It sounds... fun."
Merlin laughed as well. "Yeah, it kind of is," he said. "But it's difficult sometimes, trying to keep my magic secret in front of Arthur – I swear he gets into trouble on purpose sometimes, just to annoy me. Wouldn't put it past him."
"What do you think Arthur would do if he found out about you?" Gwen asked.
Merlin's face darkened. "I honestly don't know," he said. "Part of me thinks that he wouldn't turn me in, but that's probably wishful thinking."
"But you've saved his life so many times..."
Merlin snorted. "I think that's what'll offend him the most," he said. "Magic he could handle. Me saving his life... he'd hate that. He was prissy enough over the Lady Helen thing."
Gwen quirked an eyebrow. "He sounds positively charming," she said sarcastically.
"He's alright," Merlin said quickly, a little defensively. Gwen raised both eyebrows at that, but decided not to say anything. She would soon have the opportunity to form her own opinion of the Prince. She swallowed down her nervousness and tried not to let it show as they neared the entrance to the camp.
It was strange, but Gwen felt oddly aware of her body as she led Ama up to the Hinwic gate. She remembered what Merlin had said about her looking girly, and she couldn't stop thinking about every tiny movement she made, worrying that it was too feminine. She scratched her stomach as she and Merlin approached the guards on the gate, remembering the advice he had given her, and made her expression as sullen as possible.
Merlin strode on a couple of paces ahead of Gwen, and called out to one of the guards. "New recruit," he said, gesturing behind him to Gwen. "I'm gonna take him to Bodin."
Gwen eyed the guard nervously, but he didn't so much as glance at her before nodding and waving them through; she didn't know whether it was because he knew and trusted Merlin or because he just wasn't very good at his job... either way, Gwen was grateful for it.
She was in the camp; step one complete.
"Who's Bodin?" Gwen asked, catching up with Merlin.
"Master at Arms," Merlin answered. "Real hard-nose. Everyone has to report to him when they arrive."
Gwen nodded. "Right," she said weakly.
"This way," said Merlin, leading the way through the maze of tents and huts. Gwen followed him dumbly, trying to seem small and uninteresting as well as manly and tough, while at the same time trying to take in everything she could. She couldn't see any real order to the way everything was laid out – everything was a complete shambles, or so it seemed to her. Tents had been pitched everywhere, and where she could see through the open flaps Gwen could see men – conscripted soldiers – and they were men such as she had never seen them. There was not a single other woman in the camp, and these men were clearly taking advantage of the fact. Well, Gwen hoped they were; she hated to think that they would act so... lewd... in the presence of women.
Two men stumbled across the path in front of Gwen and Ama, carrying a large trunk between them, and one of them called the other a name so rude that Gwen had to turn her head away to hide her blush. Her eyes fell on a tent to her right – the flap was open, and there was a man inside lounging on the ground, chewing on a hunk of bread and scratching his stomach. His hand started scratching lower and Gwen gasped and turned her head again – the next man she looked at was picking his nose, and as she watched pulled his finger out to examine what he'd found. Then he ate it.
Gwen gulped and hurried to catch up with Merlin. "I don't think I can do this," she groaned quietly to him.
Merlin stopped, looking delighted. "Really? Okay – follow me, I'll show you a way out..."
Gwen grabbed his shoulder. "No, wait – I... I can. I just need to..." Her voice trailed off as she stared over Merlin's shoulder.
"Man up?" Merlin suggested.
Gwen nodded, but she wasn't really paying attention. Behind Merlin there was a circular, fenced-off area, and six men stood inside it, sparring with each other in three pairs. They weren't wearing armour, or any kind of protection – just breeches and shirts – and a fight was over when one of them disarmed the other. Several other men were leaning on the fence, and whenever anyone lost their sword one of them would leap in and take their place.
Gwen could make a sword from scratch. She knew what were the best metals to use, the optimum heat for the forge, everything there was to know about balance and style... but she couldn't wield one. She'd asked her father to teach her once, and he'd laughed and said that there were some things she didn't need to know.
And now she was here. She wouldn't last a minute in a sword fight.
Merlin turned around to see what Gwen was staring at. "Sword training," he said unnecessarily.
Another man got disarmed, but just as one made to jump in and take his place, another man place a hand on his shoulder and stopped him. This man jumped into the ring instead, and the five men inside all lowered their swords and turned to face him.
Gwen was too far away to hear what he was saying, but it was clear that this new man held some kind of authority over the others. He turned so Gwen caught a glimpse of his face, and she was surprised to see that he was young, probably around the same age as herself. He was tall and muscular and had golden hair that seemed to glint in the late afternoon sun. He wore simple black breeches and a red shirt, but the sword in his hand was clearly of good quality.
As Gwen watched, the man pointed at two of the men, and a moment later both attacked him at the same time. He parried their attacks with an ease that took Gwen's breath away, disarming both of them within seconds. He was speaking to the group as they retrieved their swords, and then all five men in the ring swarmed round him, attacking. His sword moved so fast it was like a silver blur, and Gwen's jaw dropped as, one by one, the five other swords fell to the ground.
Gwen had never seen anything so... impressive.
Gwen glanced at Merlin, and saw that he was watching her with amusement. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could a deep, bitter voice spoke out from behind them.
The speaker was a middle-aged man, about a head shorter than Gwen and with coarse black hair pulled back into a short ponytail. His hair and beard was streaked with grey, but his eyes were bright and lively. He had a long thin scar running from his right temple down his cheek and neck and disappearing under his collar. His soldier's uniform was worn but immaculate, and he was glaring at the swordsman.
"Hello Bodin," Merlin said cheerfully. "I've brought a new one for you." He clapped Gwen on the shoulder.
The man – Bodin – turned his face towards Gwen and ran an appraising eye over her. She stood still, trying to look as unfeminine as possible, and also not like she was about to throw up. After a few seconds of staring at her, Bodin grunted, and beckoned another, younger soldier over to him.
"You see to this lad," he said, turning back to his tent.
Lad – he called her lad! She was in! It took everything Gwen had to remember what Merlin had said about not smiling.
The younger man came over and started circling Gwen, looking her up and down. With Bodin, Gwen had felt that the man was really looking. With this man, Gwen got the feeling he was just enjoying the power he had over her, and her hackles went up.
"Better put him with the archers – weakling looks like he couldn't lift a dagger, let alone a sword," he announced after two complete circles around her. Several other soldiers nearby laughed nastily, and Gwen's nostils flared angrily.
She pulled out her sword – this time it came out properly – and glared at the man who'd been circling her. She cleared her throat, remembering her voice just in time. "As you can see, I can definitely lift a sword," she said coldly.
The man sneered. "Yeah, but can you use it?"
Gwen wasn't about to admit that. She glanced at Merlin, and saw that he was watching her with a strange mixture of worry and pride. She knew she was doing the right thing – a man wouldn't back down, and neither would she.
"Let's find out," she said, with much more courage than she felt.
The man laughed again, and pulled out his own sword. Then, quicker than Gwen could even think, he'd did something with the sword point and her own sword went flying – all Gwen could do was watch as it fell to the ground out of reach.
"Guess that's a no," said the man, who then dropped his own sword, reached out both hands and shoved Gwen in the chest.
She tried to keep her balance but it was no use – she stumbled and fell back, and as she did she crashed into something hard behind her. She heard gasps around her, and Merlin call out "OY!", but she wasn't hurt, and she jumped back to her feet and ran at the man who'd pushed her over. He was looking the other way, laughing with his friends, and didn't see Gwen until she tackled him round the waist, pushing him to the floor with her. Gwen kind of lost track after that. She'd been in fights before, but not since she was a little girl, and even then it hadn't exactly been more serious than squabbling with Merlin or Will over a toy or something. She was aware of being kicked, and of getting a few punches in, and then of quite a few more bodies joining in the fray, and soon she was pressed into the grass and unable to move but to cover her head with her arms as at least four men fell at her.
It was Bodin who had yelled, and Gwen's attackers immediately jumped off of her.
"He started it, Sir!" Exclaimed the man who'd disarmed Gwen.
Gwen stayed where she was for a moment, assessing her injuries. She was aching in quite a few places and was sure to have some colourful bruises the next day, but there was no serious damage. She raised her head just in time to see Brodin walking over to her, looking distinctly grim.
"What's going on here?"
Gwen's head whipped round towards the new voice, and her eyes widened when she saw it was the swordsman in the red shirt. He was still holding his sword in one hand, his chest heaving as though he'd been duelling a moment before. Now that he was closer, Gwen could see that he extremely handsome... not that she was there to notice things like that.
Bodin grunted. "Nothing I can't handle, your highness," he said, the last two words stated in a highly sarcastic tone.
Gwen's eyes widened still further and she turned to stare at the swordsman again, realising that this man was the legendary crown prince himself, Arthur.
He didn't look happy.
Gwen scrambled to her feet as the Prince walked – no, stalked was more like it – over to her, and stopped right in front of her, glaring. "I don't need anybody making trouble in my camp," he said coldly.
"Sorry," said Gwen, looking away. She suddenly realised that she had spoken in her normal voice, and quickly deepened her tone, trying to cover her slip. "I mean, I'm sorry about that... er, you know how it is when you have those... manly urges, then you just have to kill something..."
Oh dear god what had made her say that, of all things?
Prince Arthur glared at her. "What's your name?" He demanded.
"Gwen," she answered without thinking "– don," She added quickly. She cleared her throat. "Gwyndon. Or, just Gwyn."
"Where's your conscription notice?"
Gwen quickly pulled out the scroll and handed it to Prince Arthur. He gave her another glare as he unrolled it, but his expression quickly cleared as he read it. "Leodegrance? As in, Sir Thomas Leodegrance?" He asked her.
Gwen nodded, a little surprised that he knew of her father. He couldn't be old enough to actually remember him, could he? She'd thought he was only a couple of years older than herself.
"I didn't know Sir Thomas had a son," Prince Arthur said now, snapping Gwen back to the present.
Gwen thought fast. "He...er... doesn't talk about me much," she said, shrugging.
Prince Arthur gave her a suspicious look. "Merlin?" He called over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off Gwen. "Didn't you say once you knew Sir Thomas?"
Oh no. Now Merlin was being dragged into it – and so quickly, too.
Merlin came and stood next to Arthur, nodding. "Sure. Yeah. He lives right near me," he said. "I've known... Gwyn... all my life."
Gwen caught Merlin's eye and started to smile, but he shot her a glare and she stopped. She quickly folded her arms and made sure her feet were far apart, like he'd said. Prince Arthur was looking at Merlin with narrowed eyes, and then turned back to Gwen, who stared back at him, concentrating on keeping her face impassive. It helped not to look at the prince, so she stared over his shoulder instead, at the fence around the fighting area she'd first seen him.
"Very well," he said after a moment. "Well, Gwyndon, as the son of a Knight of Camelot, you should know better." He thrust her conscription notice back at her, and stalked past, towards the men she'd been fighting.
"Thanks to your new friend Gwyndon here, all of you will spend this evening picking up every single grain that got spilled here," he announced.
Gwen frowned and then realised that the thing she'd crashed into had been a barrel full of grain, which were now scattered over the grass. She closed her eyes briefly and opened them just as Arthur turned back to face her. "Tomorrow, the real work begins."
The prince narrowed his eyes at her once more and then turned and walked off, sword still in hand.
The soldiers started grumbling, glaring daggers at Gwen, as Merlin sidled up to her. "You okay?"
"That went well," he said.
Merlin gave Gwen an apologetic smile. "Duty calls," he said. He shrugged and ran after Prince Arthur.
Gwen sighed and turned to the barrel of grain. Yes, it certainly did.