A fooled King, a spurned Maid and a likely Knight
Disclaimer: Shine owns Merlin, I own nothing but my imagination
Beta: Many thanks to StevieG for all of his helpful suggestions and corrections to this story.
Their conversation had lasted such a short time. Yet the words, chosen in the hope of letting her down gently, hurt so deeply it felt as though she had been cut repeatedly with the sharpest sword in the kingdom. One phrase, in particular, continued to reverberate through her mind: that she was 'not appropriate'. The aching pain made her feel sick and feverish, but there was also a growing sense of injustice competing with her broken heart. What was she supposed to do now; how could her life go on when she had lost her love.
Confused Gwen tried to remember everything about Arthur; not just the words, but the sound of his voice and how he had looked. A desperate thought came to her that he might have been enchanted, after all it had happened before and more than once. Strangely that idea made her giggle, almost to the point of hysteria. Then the sensible side of Gwen fought back to take control, insisting that she pull herself together and wipe away the bitter tears that had fallen freely. Exhausted, she sat down at the table where she had once shared a meal with Arthur. That had been a time long before he became the distant king who had visited her simple home that evening. Previously Arthur had made promises that they would be together one day and Gwen had managed to shut out the small voice in her mind that whispered it would never come true. Now it felt like she had been living a fool's dream and it had taken Arthur's words to brutally awaken her to reality.
Unsure what she was supposed to do now that the dream was over, Gwen sought comfort by returning to the mundane chores that were a large part of her life as a servant. Wearily she rose from the stool and put away the pewter plate and cup she had used for her evening meal in the cupboard and placed a spoon and knife with the other utensils that had all been beautifully fashioned by her late father. She let her fingers linger to stroke the finely formed metal of the large serving ladle, remembering with fondness that her father liked to call her his princess. Now that was the only title she would ever have, and Gwen decided that would be enough for her. It seemed she had been let down by all the men in her life apart from her dear father. Tom the Blacksmith had been an honest man, who went by how people behaved rather being impressed by titles. He had been rightly proud of his work and his service to Camelot and look where that had got him. He had been falsely accused, imprisoned and killed on the orders of King Uther. There was a flame of anger that still lingered at the terrible fate of her gentle father, which was deeply engrained in her mind along with her grief at his loss.
Gwen was startled from her thoughts by a loud knock at her door, and her heart could not help but leap in hope that Arthur had returned to say he had been wrong and beg her forgiveness. She had to take a moment to compose herself as best she could before rushing to open the door, only to find the last person she wanted to see waiting impatiently outside.
Lord Agravaine was on her doorstep, his usual smarmy smile in place, only with what looked to Gwen like fake concern flitting across his features. She thought at once that he knew what Arthur had done and had come to gloat. When he made as if to try to enter her home, Gwen chose to stand firm and block his path. The shock of his unexpected appearance was not strong enough to override the distain she felt for him.
Agravaine for his part cursed the serving wench's stubborn pride which left him cooling his heels and exposed to public curiosity. A man of his status did not make a habit of visiting a mere servant and he certainly did not want to take the chance that reports of his actions might get back to the palace. After deciding that it was unwise to simply barge past her, Agravaine tried to reason with Gwen.
"Gwen, my dear, I have a personal message from the King, please let me enter. I'm sure given the rumours circulating about you it would be best that your neighbours did not hear what I have to say?"
"I have nothing to hide, my Lord," Gwen stated firmly, not trying to hide her disgust at the insinuations he was stooping so low to make. She knew well enough that the precise nature of her relationship with Arthur had been the hottest topic for the Camelot gossipmongers for over a year.
He refused to budge and her curiosity about the message from Arthur finally forced Gwen to reluctantly step back from the door. Agravaine then quickly took the opportunity to enter her home, looking furtively behind him before shutting the door. Gwen was sure that he had nothing good to say for she suspected he had been the voice in Arthur's ear that had turned the king away from her. Gwen had seen him in action and was certain that he had done this task with honeyed words; he was a skilful negotiator, able to turn on charm when required and slay arguments with a silken tongue. All Gwen knew was that she did not trust this man and it was more than a gut feeling that made her instinctively recognise him as a foe.
Agravaine quickly took in his surroundings, managing to hide his wonder at how a person who lived a peasant's life could ever have aspired to be Queen of Camelot. Gwen looked at him with a guarded expression on her face as he addressed her in his best diplomatic voice. "I know Arthur has spoken to you, believe me when I say it was a hard decision for him to give you up. I hope you understand that a good King must put the interests of his kingdom first, before any personal feelings he may have."
"I understand that Arthur must make difficult decisions and I'm sure he appreciates your counsel. I am unsure why you are here, my lord."
It should be noted at this point that Lord Agravaine had an almost blind confidence in his abilities to dazzle the female sex into submission. He chose to ignore that his great wealth and status had any bearing on their willingness to bend to his will. Apart from one or two notable exceptions this was a man who was used to getting his own way, so he did not even consider that a mere servant would have a defence against what he had to offer. Let alone give credence to the idea that Gwen might have a mind of her own. He put the recent incident when she had the nerve to question him in front of Camelot's council down to ignorant impudence. In his mind she had simply been emboldened due to being favoured by the King. All he had to do was choose his words carefully and she would be putty in his hands.
"Of course, but this is a delicate matter and I hope that you won't take this the wrong way?" Agravaine had the good grace to look slightly uncomfortable as he finished his speech, "Arthur wishes to compensate you for all you have done for him."
Then his lordship reached for the plush red velvet money purse attached to his belt. Untying it, he held out the bulging pouch to Gwen, all the time trying and failing to look convincingly sympathetic.
Gwen had to fight a sudden but not surprising urge to throw the money at his smug face. Only the realisation that she could not be sure how Arthur would react if she flung his gift at Lord Agravaine stopped her from acting. Instead Gwen used her rage to draw herself to her full height and muster her dignity, as through gritted teeth she replied, "I have already been paid for my work as a palace servant; I do not want nor need any other compensation."
"Don't let your pride cloud your judgement, child. You are the talk of Camelot. The daughter of a Blacksmith; a servant wearing clothes fit only for a lady, a servant whose sole duty was to be the trusted nurse to the ailing King over the past year. The only conclusion the people can make is that you were my nephew's mistress; the lover of the man who is now their King. Can you even remember the last time you carried out the real duties of a servant?"
With that cutting remark Agravaine carefully placed the pouch on the table that dominated Gwen's tiny cottage. Then His Lordship took Gwen's silence after his damming assessment of her current position, as an invitation to offer her some advice.
"I want you to think what would be best for you, and Arthur. What if, for example, you were to leave Camelot before he returns from battle? I know of an inn, half a day's ride away called The Silver Horseshoe. The owner runs a respectable house and she is looking for a girl of good character to work with her. I have already sent word that I know of a suitable person, so the mention of my name will ensure you a warm welcome. The duties will not be onerous and you won't be too far from your brother. Think on my offer Gwen, it will be a fresh start for you and Arthur."
To emphasis his case Agravaine leaned forward to lift up the money pouch again, swinging it slightly to make the coins held within clatter against each other. "And if you invest this wisely you can be assured of a comfortable life. Lack of money will never be a worry for you, and that thought will make Arthur happy. You know that he owes you a debt of gratitude for the way you cared for his beloved father."
Regardless of the way his lordship's words had been couched to suggest he felt some sympathy for her situation, Gwen knew he wished to insult her; to make his true feelings about her clear. However she disregarded all of that to ask the one question that concerned her most, "Arthur wants me to go?"
"He did not say that in so many words, but you must agree that it can only be awkward for both of you now. Arthur must form an alliance; the right marriage will strengthen Camelot's position in the five kingdoms. If you stay, you will be a reminder of what he has given up, a distraction."
"I see, so it is best for everybody that I leave." Gwen said, ignoring her heartache and the lack of respect she held for the man before her, because his words made a terrible sense. Once she had thought that it would be possible to cope with the idea of Arthur marrying a real princess, watching their relationship grow and not bemoan her lot. The past year had changed that. She had spent so much time with Arthur and had come to feel far too strongly for him to be able to stand in the shadows while another woman held the right to be by his side.
Agravaine could not help a small smile and Gwen hated him as he signalled his victory against her. "I'm glad you've decided to do the right thing, and remember The Silver Horseshoe, it will be a new start for you. Now I must go, we have an early start tomorrow and there are preparations to make. Camelot depends on the King and his army to defeat our foes."
"This I know and I have faith in Arthur. He is a good man and will be a great King; he will do all in his power to win this battle and protect his people."
"How very admirable my dear, don't forget that you too have a part to play in the future of Camelot."
He replaced the money pouch on the table and turning, swept out of Gwen's home without a backward glance.
Gwen sank down on a stool by the fire, too emotionally drained by events to do anything more than stare at the bag of money that appeared to represent all that remained of her life in Camelot.
Lord Agravaine slowed his horse as best he could as it slithered down a muddy slope. Riding in the dark through a forest was treacherous, even though he was an expert horseman and knew well the paths to take. He carried a flaming torch to light his way, holding the horse's reins one handed. As he came to the empty hovel that was the Lady Morgana's home he paused. There was no sign of life because Morgana had pledged to assist the Queen of Caerleon's war against Camelot. In this she was an instrument of Agravaine's revenge just as much as he was her loyal servant. Their shared hatred for King Uther made them natural allies although having come to know Morgana, Agravaine knew he was capable of anything just to receive the smallest sign of appreciation from that lady.
As his horse fretted at being halted outside that dark and forbidding place deep in the forest, Agravaine listened for the drifting noise that gave away the camp of mercenaries organised and paid for by him in Morgana's name. They were an unruly bunch of cutthroats and vagabonds but that only made them easier to buy and they had already proved they could be counted on. As long as there was food in their bellies, enough cheap ale to warm them and the promise of future rewards, they were sworn to Lady Morgana's cause.
Agravaine was stopped by a sentry before he could enter the ramshackle camp. There were about thirty men there and from the light of the central fire he could see they were busy making merry with his money. The sentry gave him a toothless grin and waved him into the camp with his unsheathed sword which gleamed in the reflected fire light. At least Agravaine approved of the care the man took of his weapon though his lack of personal hygiene was unpleasantly evident.
The leader of the mercenaries, Gerallt, also known as the Lone Wolf, had seen Agravaine first and was striding out to meet him. His large frame was draped in various animal furs that still had their skeletal heads along with some pointy teeth to complete the grisly effect. His dirty brown hair was a matted mane and the full beard only partially covered a vivid scar that ran the length of his right cheek. He was the sort of man that no member of the nobility would ever welcome into their castles though they were more than happy for him to do their dirty work. Despite his looks Agravaine knew Gerallt was an intelligent man; a natural leader, and a good fighter skilled with sword, battle axe and spear. He was someone Agravaine made sure to deal with extreme caution.
Although loathed to dismount from his horse, Agravaine knew Gerallt would take it as an insult if he literally talked down at him. He was standing on the ground holding his horse's reins in one hand and the torch in the other by the time his paid man reached him. Agravaine was not a short man but Gerallt seemed to tower over him and he was giving off the impression that he was not particularly pleased to see his lord.
Indeed Gerallt took a particular pleasure in lavishing attention on Agravaine's fine stallion, stroking the horse's forehead and muzzle while ignoring its master. When he finally spoke his tone was dripping with insolence, "So have you chosen to cower behind Camelot's walls while the King and his men ride to their doom?"
"At dawn tomorrow I will ride with King Arthur. My place is at his side, he relies on my counsel." Agravaine replied, choosing not to rise to the bait. As he expected Gerallt and his men were becoming weary of doing nothing and that made them more difficult to handle.
As Gerallt appreciatively ran his hands over the horse's mane and shoulders he gave voice to his thoughts, "You nobles are strange creatures; you say you stand with the young King, your own nephew, while at the same time plotting his downfall and you see no wrong in that."
"Yet you take my silver without a qualm."
The Lone Wolf now turned his attention to the fine leather work of his Lordship's expensive saddle.
"Ah, but we are simple folk, with no airs and graces. We go where the work is to be had. We are not the ones who topple kings."
"Enough Gerallt, I am not here to discuss the finer points of court politics with the likes of you!"
Gerallt finally came round to stand with his master, casually spitting at the ground directly in front of Lord Agravaine's boots.
"Well do tell why you are gracing us with your presence, my lord."
"Do you know of Guinevere, the Blacksmith's daughter, who nursed King Uther?"
"One of Lady Morgana's Camelot spies pointed her out to me; she said that your Arthur has a special interest in the lady. Very comely, she is too; the boy has the good taste not to waste his attentions on stuck up noble ladies."
"Yes, yes," Agravaine said irritated by the Lone Wolf's lack of respect for his betters, "she will be travelling to The Silver Horseshoe on her own…"
"Why would any right minded woman want to visit that particular hornet's nest, never mind how much Lowenna shouts about running an inn for decent folk?"
"That is not your concern; I want your men to take Gwen prisoner after she gets to the inn. Lowenna will assist you, she knows what to do to stop the girl from making a scene. "
"It would seem that you have hatched a plan so to speak, but tell me, what are we to do with this Gwen once she is in our hands?"
Irritated by having his orders questioned, Agravaine could not help but retort, "use your imagination!"
"Ah but there's the problem, my lord, my imagination is going to cost you. We have not seen coins for some time and my boys are getting restless."
This was really too much and Agravaine was barely able to contain his temper, "Gwen will be carrying enough coins to keep your boys happy for a lifetime! So you will receive ample payment if you are successful!"
Gerallt gave the impression he was pondering this offer for a moment and then a slow smile started to spread across his features.
"These are difficult and dangerous times, my Lord Agravaine. What if the girl is robbed before she reaches the inn, or being a clever one hides her hoard somewhere safe. We will have carried out the plan to your liking but my boys will still go hungry. Where is the fairness in that? No, you must pay us in silver this night. You ride to battle tomorrow and as you hope to be on the losing side, what would happen to us poor fighting men then, sire?"
"You would be on the winning side, you ungrateful wretch. Lady Morgana, of the royal house of Pendragon, will claim the throne and all those who have stayed loyal to her will be rewarded."
Regardless of his words and in an ill humour at having been backed into a corner, Agravaine reached into his saddlebag for the small bag of silver coins he had hoped not to pay out and threw it at the Lone Wolf.
Gerallt expertly caught it one handed and with a huge toothy grin exclaimed, "That will do nicely, for now! Good fighting my lord, I like nothing better than a good battle myself; killing is a real man's sport!"
Agravaine was sure that last comment was meant as an insult to him and others of noble blood, who mostly left the fighting and dying to common foot soldiers. As he had got what he came for he could let the latest insult slide for the moment, that and the thought he would make Gerallt pay for his impertinence once Morgana sat on the throne was enough to calm his ire.
Agravaine handed Gerallt his flaming torch to hold for him so that he could mount his horse and before returning to Camelot, reminded the Lone Wolf of his orders:
"Just make sure that you carry out the task I've given you. Remember Gwen must never return to Camelot. I want her to disappear without a trace, so use discretion and make sure your men are sworn to secrecy."
Weary almost beyond endurance Arthur entered his rooms which were well lit by many candles and a roaring fire. He noted that for once Merlin had followed instructions and was not there waiting for him. Arthur was relieved as he did not want to see anyone else that night, not after his conversation with Gwen, which had caused him such self-inflicted and piercing pain. He stared out of a window overlooking the courtyard below where people were still scurrying to and fro, making preparations for the departure of his army the next morning. Camelot was getting ready for war and the responsibility for the carnage that would result was his alone. That fact should have been the only thing he was concentrating on, but all he could think about was how much he had hurt Gwen. After he left her cottage it had taken all of his strength not to return, apologise and beg her to take him back.
Lifting his gaze from the activity below him, Arthur found himself searching the darkened town beyond the inner defences. The meagre light from lone candles illuminating the windows of the town of Camelot helped him in his search for Guinevere's cottage. His need to make sure she was safe by searching for the light that marked out that her house was occupied had become a nightly habit and was now second nature to him. Although he had made the decision to turn away from Gwen, he could no more stop himself from caring for her than he could stop his heart from beating.
Yet Arthur still felt he had done the right thing as duty was what should guide a king, not personal needs and desires. He may have been born into privilege, but Arthur had been brought up to believe that he was a servant to his people, to Camelot. He felt shame for betraying Gwen's trust by breaking his promise that they could be together, but the bond to his kingdom had to come first. Arthur had heard that time would ease the heartache that made him focus on that particular pinprick of wavering light among many in the darkness. One day soon, if his uncle had anything to do with it, he would welcome a suitable princess to Camelot and make her his queen. Then if his life was not to be one of complete misery he would have to make the best of that marriage. With that mournful thought Arthur rested his head against the cool stone that framed the window and closed his eyes. Soon he would have to crush his feelings for the Blacksmith's daughter, but not that night.