Summary: Gwaine is hurt, maybe dying. The knights struggle with grief and guilt, while Merlin races home - maybe too late to help. Meanwhile, Morgana gets a glimpse of her future, but fate demands she first ensures Gwaine can fulfil his destiny.
It was a pleasant morning, Elyan thought as he led the patrol along the edge of the forest. Sheer cliffs to his right, leading to a river barely visible down below, meant this was an unlikely place for Camelot's borders to be breached; yet all of the kingdom must be patrolled, and Elyan was fastidious in his duties.
Behind him, two of the newer recruits – Owen and Huw – were on high alert, desperate to take in every detail of the route they were being taught. Elyan admired their keenness, even as he was mildly amused by it.
Yet there was something wrong, Elyan thought, though unable to identify exactly what was disturbing him. He moved one hand from the reins, toward his sword hilt. He twisted in the saddle to signal Gwaine, who was bringing up the rear.
That was the source of his unease, Elyan realised. Gwaine had been silent ever since they'd crossed the stream five miles back. Gwaine was only quiet for any length of time was when he was asleep, and then he was usually snoring.
"Gwaine," Elyan called. "You all right back there?"
"Fine." Gwaine, swaying slightly in the saddle, didn't even try to meet Elyan's eyes.
Elyan motioned to the others and they obediently pulled their horses to a stop. Elyan dismounted and walked back to Gwaine's mount. Fine was never a convincing answer; and further, without any complaint, not that he was hungry, not that he was bored? That wasn't typical Gwaine behaviour.
"Why're we stopping?" Gwaine asked breathlessly, as if he'd been running through the woods rather than riding.
Elyan ran appraising eyes over his friend. Beneath the long dark hair, Gwaine's face was ashen. "You look terrible," Elyan said.
"I'm fine," Gwaine repeated, contrary to all evidence. At Elyan's unconvinced stare, he said with reluctance," I'm just a little dizzy."
Elyan shook his head. "You shouldn't be on a horse, let alone on patrol," he said. "You should have told me you were unwell. We'll have to head back."
"Don't be daft," Gwaine said.
"We head back," Elyan said firmly in a tone that brooked no argument. "Owen, take point, show me you remember the way we came. Huw, follow him. We'll bring up the rear."
Elyan kept his horse close to Gwaine's as they made their back through the trees. He wanted to chastise Gwaine further, but there was no point. None of the knights liked to appear weak and asking to be excused from patrol would be a weakness. No, Elyan blamed himself for this. He'd assumed Gwaine's pallor when they'd set out was due to a few too many ales the night before, when he should have realised that if that were the case he and the others would have been treated to Gwaine's complaints about the too bright sunlight, interspersed with stories of whatever he'd been up to during and after his visit to the tavern.
Owen hesitated up ahead. He looked left and right and then behind him to Elyan, but Elyan held his tongue. Owen hesitantly chose the right hand path and they continued forwards. Had it been the wrong direction, Elyan would have corrected him, but the inexperienced man needed the chance to make both decisions and mistakes. It was part of the learning process. He glanced at the sky, and wondered how long it would take to get back to Camelot. An hour, maybe.
"Stop," Gwaine mumbled suddenly, pulling on the reins and sliding from his horse.
"Halt," Elyan called. Up ahead the other two knights did as they were bid and turned their mounts. "Wait there."
Elyan dismounted. Gwaine had stumbled to a nearby tree. He had one hand pressed against the trunk to support himself and the other clutched around his middle. As Elyan watched, Gwaine bent over further, retched, and vomited at the base of the tree.
Perhaps that would help, Elyan thought, if it was something he'd eaten – Gwaine wasn't exactly a picky eater, and it wouldn't surprise Elyan if this was food poisoning. Gaius had two compounds to help with such a sickness, the first to clear the stomach and the second to soothe it, followed by a tea to cleanse the blood. By the time they got back to Camelot maybe Gwaine would only need the tea.
"Gwaine?" Elyan asked, when the retching had stopped, but Gwaine just leaned against the tree, his forehead pressing into the bark. Elyan went over to him and touched his shoulder gently. "Hey."
"Sorry," Gwaine gasped.
"It's okay." Elyan moved one hand to lift a lock of hair from Gwaine's face. His knuckles grazed Gwaine's skin, and he expected it to be hot and feverish but to his surprise it was cool and damp. Elyan frowned. He'd seen men die from injuries on the battlefield, and their skin grew pale and cold as their lifeblood drained from them.
"Are you hurt? Bleeding?"
Gwaine shook his head. "No."
"We have to get back to Gaius," Elyan said urgently.
Gwaine nodded, then turned his head and retched again. Elyan rubbed Gwaine's shoulder soothingly. When Gwaine finally tried to stand upright once more he staggered and it was only Elyan's strong arms that prevented him from falling.
"I've got you," Elyan said, and a memory rose, unbidden, of playing chase with Gwen when they were children. She'd tripped and fallen into a bush, one sleeve caught by cruel brambles. He'd untangled her as best as he could, trying to keep the thorns from tearing her flesh. They were both scratched and bleeding by the time he'd freed her and he'd held her tightly as she sobbed out her hurts and frustrations. "I've got you," he'd told her. "I've got you, Gwennie."
Gwaine was heavy, half-unconscious, in his arms. Elyan wished Percival was with them, for he'd easily be able to support Gwaine's weight. After a moment Gwaine came to his senses, and Elyan helped him to stand. To his horror, however, he saw flecks of blood upon Gwaine's lips. Gwaine wiped the back of his gloved hand over his mouth, erasing the evidence, but Elyan knew what he'd seen.
"Come on," Elyan said, one arm still around Gwaine. "On my horse. We'll ride together."
"Why?" Gwaine asked, leaning on Elyan as they made their way slowly to the horses which were only a few steps away.
"You can't ride alone," Elyan said. He whistled, and gestured with his free hand to Huw. The knight headed over to them and dismounted smoothly. "What if you fall off and hit your head? You can't afford to lose any more sense." It was a poor attempt at humour, but he didn't want to worry Gwaine and that meant business as usual, which in turn meant making jokes at each other's expense.
Huw and Elyan got Gwaine into the saddle, and then Elyan got up behind him. Huw took custody of Gwaine's horse and they set off once more. Elyan made them pick up the pace as much as the terrain and the circumstances allowed.
Gwaine drifted in and out of consciousness, and Elyan supported him as much as he could while still holding the reins. Gwaine moaned in pain as they covered some rough ground. "It hurts."
"I've got you," Elyan whispered. "We're almost there. Hold on, Gwaine. Not much further."
Elyan felt a moment of relief when the castle finally came into view.
"Owen, ride as fast as you can," Elyan called. "Clear the way for us, and fetch Percival."
Help was waiting for them, and it was just a few more minutes until they got there, but those last few miles were the longest of Elyan's life.
"What's wrong?" Percival asked, face creased with worry as Elyan finally rode into the courtyard, the horse's hooves clattering against the cobblestones.
"He's sick. You have to get him to Gaius," Elyan said as Leon hurried over to join them.
Elyan supported Gwaine as Leon and Percival manoeuvred the barely conscious man from his grasp. Once Gwaine was off the horse, one arm draped over Percival's shoulder, Percival easily lifted him. He had one arm under Gwaine's legs, the other around his shoulders, holding his friend close to his chest.
"Percy," Gwaine muttered, resting his head against Percival's shoulder, before lapsing into unconsciousness again.
"Go, quickly," Leon said. He held out a restraining hand to Elyan. "Tell me what happened. It might be important."
Elyan gave a succinct report of everything he knew – which wasn't much. Leon nodded. "See that the horses are tended to, then go and wait with the others at the training ground," Leon said and ran after Percival.
Elyan glared at Leon's retreating form. Yes, Leon was his superior, and no, Elyan couldn't actually do anything for Gwaine. But it rankled him to be cast aside after he was the one who'd brought Gwaine back to Camelot.
Nonetheless, he made sure the grooms took the horses and then began to make his way to the training ground.
He turned to see Gwen. His sister had a smile on her face. She was carrying a basket of fruit, in the middle of one of her many errands.
"I thought you weren't due back until tomorrow?"
Elyan gestured helplessly. "We had to come back." Gwen listened as he explained, giving full rein to his fears now. Her eyes widened and she shook her head several times in denial.
"I'm sure Gaius can help," Gwen said, with a confidence Elyan wished he could muster up. She put her arms around him and hugged him tightly.
Percival, equal parts strength and gentleness, helped Gaius remove Gwaine's cloak and chain mail and laid the unconscious Gwaine down on the cot. It reminded Gaius of the first time he'd met Gwaine, brought to him after being injured in a bar brawl while helping Merlin and Arthur.
"Where's Merlin?" Percival asked. It was a reasonable question, since Merlin always seemed to be around whenever one of the knights was sick or injured, desperate to help in any way he could.
"Away collecting wild teasel for me, a plant I'm experimenting with. While rather rare in Camelot itself, it does grow quite well around the Gaele Woods," Gaius said, frowning as he examined Gwaine. "Sir Andras is originally from Ridgevale, the nearest village, so he's been given leave to visit his family there in return for accompanying Merlin. I'm not expecting them back until tomorrow evening."
Gwaine swallowed and opened his eyes. "Gaius. I'm glad to see you."
Gaius gave him a small smile. The door was flung open and Leon strode in, eyes wild.
"Elyan says he was vomiting blood," Leon said.
Gaius bent over Gwaine. "Are you still nauseous?"
"Dizzy, though? Stomach pains?"
Gaius carefully folded back Gwaine's shirt. "I'll be gentle, but this may hurt," Gaius warned. Gwaine's breathing, already shallow, hitched as Gaius probed his abdomen. Gaius noted purple and red splotches around the navel. More worryingly, below the navel, where the flesh above the groin ought to be pliant even in a muscular physique, Gaius felt a rigidity that did not bode well.
"There's some bruising," Gaius said flatly. Percival sighed in relief but Gaius shook his head, his attention still on Gwaine. "When did you first notice any pain?"
"Maybe last night," Gwaine said. "It wasn't this bad."
"Have you fallen from your horse recently?" Gaius asked.
"No," Gwaine said with as much indignation as he could manage.
"An injury from a brawl, perhaps?"
Percival made a strangled noise in his throat. "Yesterday. We were training and I said I'd do better with my fists than my sword. We were wrestling and I – I punched him in the gut. I've done it before to people, I didn't mean to hurt him – it's just bruises?" His voice rose, ending with the frantic question.
"I'm afraid that bruises on the abdomen are a symptom of bleeding within the body," Gaius said. "The blood loss is as serious as an open wound, but with no easy way for me to staunch it."
Gwaine clutched at Gaius's sleeve. "It's bad?"
"I'll mix up some tea," Gaius said, avoiding the question. "Yarrow and Shepherd's Purse, with a handful of agrimony, to try and stop the bleeding - and some willow bark for the pain."
"Gaius?" Gwaine said, trying to sit up and wincing in pain.
Gaius gently pushed on Gwaine's shoulders, forcing him to lie back down. "You should rest."
"Tell me," Gwaine said.
Gaius nodded slowly. "You've lost quite a lot of blood and I don't know if the tea can halt the bleeding, though it will slow it."
Gwaine bit his lip, overcome by emotional pain on top of his physical distress. "I'm going to die from this?" he asked at last.
"I can't say," Gaius said. "Only that I cannot guarantee your survival, but I will do whatever I can to help."
Percival ran out the door, nearly knocking Leon over in his desperate flight.
"I'll mix up the herbs," Gaius said, "I'll know more once you've taken some of them. I'll get you the willow bark first."
Leon put on hand on Gaius's shoulder as he picked up two bottles from his store of remedies. "You have to save him."
"I will do my best," Gaius said. "But this is out of my hands. You should go and see to Percival."
Leon nodded. He paused at Gwaine's side. "I'll come back later," he promised, adding with blatantly false hope, "You'll be sitting up and joking by then."
"It's not his fault," Gwaine said. "Percival."
Leon told him he knew, and Gaius waited patiently for Leon to take his leave. Yet Leon lingered a while, and he brushed gentle fingers along Gwaine's cheek, and squeezed his shoulder, while Gaius stayed far enough away that he couldn't eavesdrop on Leon's whispered words to Gwaine.
At last Leon left, closing the door behind him, head bowed in sorrow.
Gwen wandered around the castle, going about her duties absentmindedly. She finally found herself in Arthur's chambers, filling a bowl with fresh fruit.
"No-one told me being a monarch would be so much so frustrating than being a prince," Arthur said from behind her. She turned, startled. He shrugged off his coat and threw it onto the bed. "I only came to change my coat. It's incredibly stuffy in the council chamber today."
Gwen nodded and Arthur frowned. "What's wrong, Gwen?"
She shrugged. "I just saw Elyan a short while ago."
His brow creased further. "I thought he was out on patrol?"
Gwen relayed Elyan's news and watched as Arthur's face grew shadowed.
"Why haven't I been informed?" he demanded.
"I don't know," Gwen said helplessly. "I suppose there was nothing to tell you until Gaius has had a look at him, and besides, you were in the meeting."
"I have the right to know," Arthur said. "I'll go and find out what's going on. Merlin!"
"He's not here," Gwen supplied even as Arthur cursed, remembering this fact. They were all used to Merlin being close by.
Arthur strode off, muttering. Gwen sat down at the table, determined to wait until he got back. Good news or bad, she wanted to know, and if it should happen to be the latter, she wanted to be there for Arthur.
She worried about Elyan and the constant danger his vocation put him in, even as she was immensely proud that he was a knight of Camelot. She couldn't bear to think about losing the only family she had left. Every time a knight was injured she felt guilt at her relief that it wasn't her brother who was hurt.
Sometimes though the injured party was almost as close as family. They'd lost Lancelot all too recently, and his loss had hurt Gwen deeply, for she'd loved him as one of her dearest friends. She knew that Merlin, Elyan, Percival and Gwaine had also been grief stricken, though she wasn't close enough to Percival for him to share that with her directly, and, as far as she knew Gwaine hadn't openly mourned.
It would be devastating for them to lose Gwaine too. Gwen closed her eyes, trying to remain calm. Her anxiety would serve no purpose. She got up, paced the room. Sat back down again.
The minutes dragged by.
Percival was sitting on a hay bale outside the weapons tent which was at the edge of the training ground.
"Percival." Leon hurried over to him. When he got nearer he saw that Percival was holding a thick branch in his hands, broken in two with, Leon guessed, barely any effort. He looked up at Leon with horror.
"I just don't know my own strength." He dropped the pieces of wood to the floor and buried his head in his hands.
Leon was at a loss.
When he'd been much younger and had only been training with the knights for a few months, Sir Brys had been practising his swordsmanship with Sir Esgeir. Leon had been somewhat bored of watching the other knights and longed for his chance to demonstrate his own skills.
Then Esgeir slipped on the damp grass, and his parry failed to stop Brys's sword from cutting deeply into his side. By the time the physician could be summoned, Esgeir was dead, the grass soaked in his blood, and Brys was on his knees, howling in despair.
"These things happen," Leon and the others had been told. "It is no-one's fault."
The day after Esgeir's funeral, Leon found Brys dead.
There were some sights and sounds and smells that Leon would never forget. The stink of burning flesh after the dragon attacked; the terrible sight of skeletal warriors advancing on him; and the eerie creaking sound of the rope grating against the stable's wooden crossbeam.
Brys had been given a decent funeral and it was always referred to as an accident to spare him and his family any shame, and that was when Leon learnt that sometimes accidents weren't so accidental. Leon had hoped never to have to bear this burden, to be the one to comfort a knight who'd – possibly - just murdered his brother in arms.
"It was an accident," Leon said, the irony of this not escaping him. "You didn't mean to hurt him. He doesn't blame you."
"I blame me," Percival said, lifting his gaze to meet Leon's.
Leon moistened his lips and tried desperately to think of something he could say to comfort Percival. He couldn't let Percival fall into suicidal despair.
"There's always hope," Leon said, remembering how the Cup of Life had saved him from otherwise certain death. If only they had that precious artefact in their possession. He put one hand on Percival's knee and stared intently into his eyes. "Always."
Percival lowered his gaze and stared at the ground, eyes damp with unshed tears. Leon could do no more than to sit alongside him so that he was not alone with his grief.
"You think that will help?" Gwaine asked as Gaius took away the empty mug, hoping he wouldn't be asked to drink a third mug of the stuff.
"It's the best remedy I know," Gaius said.
"It tastes disgusting."
"I know. I'm sorry about that." Gaius sighed. "You ought to have come to me earlier."
Gwaine gave him a half-smile. "You know how it is."
"Pride," Gaius said. "That's what it is."
"Then I'll die from my sin," Gwaine said, with a bitterness he hadn't intended. "Why, Gaius? I've been hit much worse than what Percival did to me. I've fallen off my horse, and jumped out of high windows, and been in more brawls that I can remember. Why this one blow?"
Gaius shook his head. "Who can say? There was a tavern owner I knew once, long ago, who used to smash mugs against his head for fun. Years he did this; earning himself the nickname Hard-Head. Then one day he was dismounting from his cart, and slipped over. Fell no more than a foot or two, but he banged his head on the cobbles and knocked himself out cold. He never woke up; despite my best efforts he died the next day."
Gwaine considered this. "An unfortunate mishap, then. Or maybe it was just his time?"
"And now it's my time. And I'm not ready." He'd risked his life plenty of times but for his friends, for glory, honour, a damsel, treasure, or sometimes just the sheer thrill of it. But he hadn't been risking his life when he'd been hurt this time, and it shouldn't end this way.
"Few people are ever ready," Gaius said.
"I know. But not like this. Not over something so stupid." Gwaine blinked hard. "Not when Percival will have to live with it."
Gaius crouched beside Gwaine. "I'm doing what I can. Don't give up yet. Now, how's the pain? And don't lie."
Gwaine closed his eyes briefly. "Still hurts."
"We'll try some poppy extract," Gaius said. "It doesn't work as quickly as the willow, but I hesitate to use heavy doses of willow where there's heavy bleeding."
The syrup was at least somewhat sweeter and more palatable than any of the other things Gaius had made him drink.
"Have you seen anyone survive this?" Gwaine asked as Gaius checked his pulse.
"Rarely. Are you cold?"
Honesty followed by obvious evasion; Gwaine was certain now that Gaius, despite his urgings that he shouldn't give up, didn't expect him to live. Nevertheless, Gwaine was still cold and told him so.
Gaius fetched another blanket, folding it over him solicitously. He could be wet and cold on some rain soaked battlefield, Gwaine told himself, lost and alone, dying from a sword thrust to the gut. It could be worse than this. It didn't help.
Still, he managed to sleep for a while, until he heard Arthur's voice.
Arthur had seen too much death in his life already. He knew he would see much more. It came with the noble birth and now that he wore the crown he was responsible for every man, woman and child in Camelot. It was inevitable some would perish before their time, but that knowledge did nothing to ease his burden, especially when the dead or dying was one of his men – one of his knights; a friend.
He'd stormed into the room and made loud complaints and demands for information. In response, Gaius had spoken in quiet, calming tones that Arthur found himself matching. It was worse than he'd feared. That Percival was guilt-stricken made things even worse, and hearing that Leon had gone after him made Arthur feel a pang of guilt himself for his outbursts at Gwen and now at Gaius. It wasn't that anyone had been excluding him; it was merely that they had been prioritising the physically wounded and emotionally upset
"Are you saying he's dying?" Arthur asked in a low voice.
"I am saying he's seriously ill."
"How long?" Arthur asked, fighting back renewed anger at Gaius's refusal to give a straight answer. "Before you know if he'll live? Or before he dies?"
Gaius spread his hands. "Hard to say. The herbs could still save his life."
Arthur heard the doubt in his voice. "But you don't believe that."
Gaius's face fell. "No, sire. He's shown no improvement and in fact, further decline despite the remedies. Perhaps if he'd come to me yesterday, before he'd lost so much blood. Or perhaps the injury is so severe that nothing I could have done would have been enough."
Arthur felt his hand ball into a fist, though he had no-one to strike out at it in retaliation for this injustice. "Then I'll ask again. How long?"
"He may live through the night," Gaius said softly.
Arthur swallowed hard and gave a curt nod to show he'd heard. It was a few seconds before he trusted that his voice would be steady enough to speak again. "Does he know?"
Arthur nodded again and made his way to Gwaine's side. He crouched down, forcing a wan smile.
"Lying down on the job?"
Gwaine's lips quirked upwards. "Sorry, sire."
Arthur stared at the floor for a long moment. "Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable? Anything we can do for you?"
Gwaine considered this for a moment. Arthur closed his eyes briefly but couldn't close his ears to the terrible sound of Gwaine's ragged breathing.
"Some wine," Gwaine said at last. "Gaius's concoctions taste like sheep dip. And it would be a terrible thing to die sober."
Arthur nodded solemnly. "Indeed it would."
"Wine wouldn't be a good idea," Gaius began.
"Will it really make a difference?" Arthur demanded, glancing over his shoulder at the physician. If Gwaine wanted to hasten the inevitable in exchange for one last moment of pleasure, who were they to interfere?
Gaius shrugged helplessly. "I suppose not."
"Wine," Arthur repeated. "I'll have Gwen bring some. The finest from the cellar, something we've been keeping back for a banquet. Now, surely there's something else?"
Gwaine nodded as best as he could. "Merlin," he said. "I would like to say goodbye to Merlin."
Arthur felt a stab of grief at this simple request. Merlin and Gwaine had always been close, and Arthur knew that, if he were dying, Gwen and Merlin were the people he would most want at his beside. It was all the more poignant that this was something out of Arthur's control.
Arthur clasped Gwaine's hand. "Of course. I'll have his lazy servant behind dragged straight back here. You just have to a wait a little while."
"I'll do my best," Gwaine promised.
Arthur nodded. "Good man." He squeezed Gwaine's hand and then released him. He walked past Gaius, unable to meet the man's eyes.
Without conscious thought Arthur made his way to the training ground where no training was taking place. The men were huddled in pairs or small groups, some sitting on the grass, some standing. At his approach they made some attempt at lining up as if for inspection.
"Elyan, Ferris," Arthur said sharply, pointing at each of them in turn. "I want you to go to Ridgevale and find Merlin. Bring him back here, immediately. Do not stop for anything. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sire," Elyan said, Ferris quickly adding his own agreement.
"Then go," Arthur bellowed. The two men ran as if the hounds of Annwyn were on their heels.
"Sire?" Leon asked diffidently. "I was going to report to you –"
"Never mind," Arthur said. "You were doing your best in a difficult situation, as Gaius explained to me. I know we're all upset by this, but, for now, just continue training." It would be a welcome distraction for the rest of the knights, and besides, life went on. Tomorrow they'd mourn. The day after that they'd go about their business as usual, many still grieving but all of them moving on.
Leon gave him the look that Arthur knew meant Leon had more to say, but was keeping quiet out of respect for Arthur's position as king.
Arthur glanced over at Percival, who was sitting on a bale of straw, head in his hands. It would be cruel and dangerous to put Percival in a position to hurt anyone else right now. Arthur shook his head. "Not Percival."
"I'll watch out for him."
"Of course. Thank you." There were a number of reasons Leon was Arthur's second-in-command, and his concern for the welfare of his men was one of them. Arthur made to leave, then turned back. Leon was watching him expectantly.
"Gaius said that he – that Gwaine…he might last out the night," Arthur said. "If you want to see him, you should make time before nightfall." He realised he ought to have sent someone else to fetch Merlin back, not Elyan, for now he'd also taken away Elyan's chance to say a farewell to Gwaine. Damn.
Leon nodded. Arthur walked back towards the castle, hearing the sound of Leon's orders to the knights but not the actual words. Sometimes he felt he'd aged ten years when his father died, and that every day since was like a week.
The emotional demands of kingship far outweighed the physical ones, and Arthur longed for the days when he was the Crown Prince and had spent most of his time with the men under his command, instead of in endless meetings with those who'd never taken up the sword and had no real idea of the risks taken and lives lost to secure their freedom.
He found himself back at his chambers, where Gwen was waiting. She was biting her lip and fiddling with the flower arrangement on the windowsill. He was grateful that she was still here, though he knew it was going to fall to him to break the bad news to her. Her father, then Lancelot – hadn't she suffered enough loss these past few years?
"Gwen," Arthur said softly.
She turned and stared at him, one hand twisting her skirts in her anxiety. "Yes?"
He hated to be the one to cause her pain. The detachment inferred upon him by his kingship made the words come more easily but couldn't stop their sting. Her eyes filled with tears though she didn't openly weep.
"So you're to take wine to him," Arthur said. "And we must pray Merlin is returned to us swiftly." It sounded like a speech and he hated that; this was Gwen and he was talking about Gwaine, and they both deserved better than empty platitudes.
"Of course," Gwen said. She made to leave and suddenly Arthur caught at her sleeve.
"Gwen," he said again and her resolve broke. He pulled her close, let her cry into his shoulder. Better she cry now and regain control before going to see Gwaine, he reasoned. Besides, he needed to comfort her. His ability to grieve was curtailed by his responsibilities and the loss of his father was still a raw wound on his soul; to let himself begin mourning again for any reason would plunge him into a darkness he could not afford. Gwen could grieve openly, mourn for both of them, and he would stand firm and comfort her.
"Sire?" Agravaine was standing in the doorway. Barely concealed distaste showed on his face at what he surely considered to be inappropriate behaviour. "We're waiting for you."
"I will be along shortly," Arthur said. Gwen had already pulled away, wiping at her eyes in embarrassment.
"The loss of any knight is a loss to all of Camelot," Agravaine said. How was he even aware of the situation? Arthur was barely up to speed with developments. "However, there are other important matters to discuss.
"Yes. I said I will be along shortly," Arthur said, with enough menace that Agravine left without another word. His uncle had been a welcome source of support since his father's death, but he was King Arthur, and what good was that if you couldn't sometimes lay down the law?
"I've brought wine," Gwen said softly. She bit down on her lip and turned her head, busying herself pouring the wine into a chalice she'd chosen from the kitchen. Good wine ought to be served in a worthy vessel, and a good man deserved a touch of luxury before he died.
Across the room, Gaius was reading, turning the pages of an ancient book rapidly and occasionally muttering under his breath. He was looking tired and haggard from the stress of trying to find a miracle cure.
"You may have to help me," Gwaine said. Gwen simply nodded. It took some manoeuvring but she managed to sit on the cot, with Gwaine in her arms, his head against her chest. He grasped the stem of the goblet as best as he could, and she closed her warm fingers over his cold ones, and together they lifted the vessel to his lips.
He coughed at the first mouthful, and Gwen waited patiently for the spasms to cease. He'd given her a winning smile and bowed theatrically when he'd passed her in the street just yesterday morning, his eyes alive with mischief, so vibrant and self-assured. Now he was weak and nearly lifeless in her embrace, eyes dull with pain and exhaustion.
"Let's try again," she said and this time he swallowed without choking. He didn't try to lift his hand for a third, and she let him rest, her free hand stroking his face.
"Merlin," Gwaine said. "If he doesn't come back. Before."
Before he died. "He'll be here," Gwen said. Merlin would not let Gwaine down.
"But if he doesn't," Gwaine insisted. He paused for breath, moistened his lips. "Tell him he was always a good friend."
"I will." Gwen squeezed his hand with hers, the one still clutching the goblet. "Do you want some more wine?"
He did, and they managed to get three more mouthfuls into him. Then she laid him back down, and fussed with the blankets, wishing there was something more she could do for him.
"Maybe I'll see Lancelot," Gwaine said, apropos of nothing. "I've missed him."
"Me too." Gwen let a tear fall at that. "I'm sure you'll see him again. The heroic dead will always find one another."
Gwaine gave her a wry smile. "Not a very heroic way to die."
"That doesn't change all the heroic things you've done before this," Gwen said. She leaned over and kissed Gwaine's forehead. "Merlin will be back soon. I promise."
She left him, reluctantly, but she had other duties to attend to. This time at least she'd had the chance to say goodbye.