Argh, this chapter. Mixed feelings about it, but I'm pretty sure this is as good as it's going to get for now. Uncooperative characters. It was like pulling teeth to write this conversation, because Nell and Gwaine refused to talk to each other. No joke. I started this on Valentine's Day and only finished it today. Felt like throwing things at imaginary people. I've written future scenes with those two and I know very well how adorable they're going to be and they're CANON (ish, heh) for crying out loud, but putting them together like this was like water and oil. GAH.
But I'm going to stop ranting now and let you read. And no reconciliations this chapter, because it's basically me fleshing out the relationship in a way the original legends...didn't. Different standards, back then.
They rode through the day, the first day, and camp that night was awkward and unwieldy with the Lady Ragnell Jour pitching her small tent as far from the rest as possible. She was ready to ride before any of them the next morning as well, and had prepared the rest of their horses before Galahad had breakfast made. The second day's ride, they assumed, would be just as awkward and resentful as the walk and camp as the previous day. It was, in the morning, anyway. After a quick, dry lunch, the men of Camelot sensed Gwaine's growing silence and surliness as an indication to step away, step away quickly. One by one, they urged their horses ahead of the false brunette and the hunchback until they had essentially formed two riding parties—five in the front, and two trailing behind by quite a distance. A fact that Gwaine despised and his betrothed seemed to find hilarious.
"Looks like it's just you and me for now," the old crone reached out and nudged his elbow with hers, wheezing in a way that almost seemed to be a chuckle.
Gwaine stopped himself from making a disgusted face just in time. He would be polite to this woman. He had too. He had a reputation to uphold—several, in fact. Gwaine, ladies' man, Gwaine; Knight of the Round Table; Gwaine, whose nobility comes from his actions. He still couldn't bring himself to be anything more than frostily polite to her. He didn't look at her, but did dip his head respectfully in acknowledgement of her words. "Indeed, Lady Ragnell."
The "lady" in question fell silent, a silence that was sudden and seemed unnatural or pained. "We need not be so formal," she said, speaking slowly. "We are going to be married. You can call me Nell."
"Nell?" he asked, struggling not to gag.
She smiled, even though he still wasn't looking. "Yes, Nell. It's what my family called me." He huffed in response, but didn't say another word. Her smile slipped, and she leaned ever so slightly towards him in her saddle. "…Didn't you ever have any family pet names?"
For several long seconds, she thought he would not speak. "…Gwin," he said at last, eyes on the road. "My brother Garis called me Gwin when he was still learning to talk. Sometimes he still does, if he's feeling poorly or emotional."
"How sweet." Nell waited in vain for him to speak again. She snuffled, sending a trail of snot back up her nose. "…You know, this could be a good thing. A marriage between us. It could be…advantageous for you." His hands tightened around the reigns and she wiped drool from her chin. "Caer Jour has been a prestigious and honored elf clan for centuries. To marry one of its daughters—"
"Honor, Lady Ragnell, is not something you were born with," he said shortly. "I don't care how fancy your whatever is—"
She snorted. "Caer. Means castle, or house. Elves use it for noble families."
"Whatever," he hissed, then took a deep breath, regaining control. "Your family doesn't matter to me. You could be the queen of all elves and I wouldn't care."
Her tusky smile softened into something that could almost be considered fond. "And by that argument, you wouldn't care if I were the illegitimate daughter of a milk maid, either."
"I've courted illegitimate daughters of milk maids who I liked better than some queens."
"And did you court the queens?"
Gwaine laughed before he could stop himself, his own mouth tilting into an amused smile before he realized who it was he was talking to. He looked sideways at her, surprised, before turning his attention to the front. "What about the species?" he asked. "Should humans really be marrying elves?"
"Humans and creatures of magic intermarry all the time," she said, waving her hand to the rest of the group. "Your Galahad there is one-sixteenth elf, of Caer Islir, no less. And look at Emrys and Lady Vivienne—Emrys is…well, Emrys is Emrys, I suppose, but she was human when they fell in love. Mostly human. And then there's Sir Leon up there. From the stories I've heard about the way he dances with death and the shadows I can see flickering toward him, I wouldn't be surprised if the great de Kay line has a few drops of something just a bit sinister."
The knight in question seemed normal to Gwaine when he looked to the others. He felt a flicker of fear in his chest before driving it away with a snort of laughter. Leon just couldn't be evil, though perhaps that explained the sudden temper changes the older man sometimes went through. "Uther would have loved that."
Ragnell sniffed, wiped her chin, and scratched at some itch on her lower back. "And the ap Gywar family…"
The knight tensed. "Father was a poor warlord who became infatuated with the wrong woman. End of story. No magic or anything involved."
"No magic involved with your father, no, but that changed when he married your mother. He pulled her into the family and gave her his name, your name, and names have power…" She paused. "…Anna ap Gwyar is not unknown to us in Avalon. We called her Black Annas." She looked at Gwaine with sympathy in her watery, squinty eyes. "She's dead now. Quietus was always bound to weed out some of the bad with the good. I'm sorry."
He grunted. He'd always suspected, but hearing it from someone who sounded so sure made him feel…a bit better, if he was to be perfectly honest. One less thing to fear in the world. "Why? She was horrible."
"Yes, and she was your mother. I'm sorry." He fell silent and surly, clutching the reigns as if his life depended on it. He was getting ready to spur his horse to rejoin the others when she spoke again. "You know, the ap Gywar boys are famous in Avalon as well. Tell me about the mighty Lords of Orkney."
Gwaine frowned. "If we're so famous, shouldn't you already know about us?"
"From stories of the kindness and refuge the ap Gwyar boys, particularly the elder two, offered to the users of magic while Quietus and his Bear ravaged the land, yes. I'd like to hear about them now. After all, they're going to be my brothers, too."
"…Yes. Well…" He looked to the empty space on his other side rather than try to speak directly to her. "Strictly speaking, I'm the only lord of Orkney. Garis has Westmorland and G'reth and Gravain are too young to be involved. They're all in Westmorland now, Garis ruling and Gravain learning and G'reth chasing some woman around." His nose turned at the thought of anyone being interested in his ridiculous brother. "G'reth's an idiot, and I won't make apologies for him. Gravain's the youngest and he might turn out to actually do something with himself one day. And barring the Round Table, Garis is my best friend on earth." He turned his head front again. "…And what about your brother?"
This time her wheezing laugh had a hollow, broken sound to it. "My brother is insane," she rasped. The note of bitterness in her voice caught Gwaine's attention and he turned to her with something like curiosity on his face. "I'll never understand it. We were so close when we were young…something happened to him. He grew hard, callous. Mother thought perhaps Quietus or Nimue had found him and done something…" She shook her head again. "Truth is, Caer Jour is an ancient and respected family, but we are no longer a Caer. We can't be, after Gromer. He attacked innocents, mortals and magicals alike. He took lives…He killed our parents and very nearly killed me, but changed his mind, instead—" The crone broke off abruptly, hissing in what could have been pain. Gwaine noticed her biting her tongue with a snaggled tooth. "…I don't want to talk about it."
He turned away and shrugged as if it were nothing. "I've got a crazy sister, if it helps," he said, drawing her attention. "We don't like to talk about her. She inherited all of Father's insanity and paranoia and some of Mother's maliciousness, but not enough to make her dangerous. Just sort of…embarrassing. She lost it completely and ran off after Father died. I've no idea where she is now."
His betrothed chuckled. "What's her name?"
"Grenna. Father loved his G's."
"And he never got tongue-tied, calling you all?"
"We made sure never to all get in trouble at the same time."
She cackled this time, the wicked sound he remembered from their first meeting. He swallowed back a mouthful of bile. He had almost allowed himself to be…comfortable around her. Seeming to sense his sudden apprehension, Ragnell fell quiet and seemed almost disappointed, from the way her wide outline slouched at the corner of his vision. She straightened again. "I'm glad Gromer didn't give poor Arthur any longer than two months. I've always wanted a spring wedding."
Feeling nauseous, Gwaine didn't respond.
"I suppose there won't be much time to plan, but who needs to plan a magical wedding, anyway? Emrys will help. Or perhaps Lady Vivienne."
"You're expecting Freya?" Gwaine asked, tilting his head.
With a small smirk, she said, "Lady Vivienne has been very supporting of the surviving clan members. I don't think she'd miss my wedding." She shifted in the saddle, hands running over the jewel-blossoms unconsciously. "She stayed with me after Gromer…she helped me sort things out, even though she was busy."
The knight lifted his head, something just occurring to him. "He said he would kill you if he found you again."
Ragnell sniffed heavily after a moment of silence. "…He would," she muttered, and sighed, a deep, wet sound, as though her lungs were full of fluid. "And I would let him, I think."
His heart jumped at the horrible thought of anyone simply letting themselves be killed. He'd been alone and self-sufficient long enough for that to make him nervous. "Why?" he asked, shaking his head. "You've got to have some kind of magic like your brother's."
"I don't, actually. Gromer got the talent in the family. And even if I could…he's my brother. I couldn't hurt him."
He looked at her again and for the first time didn't shudder when he did. "…You love him."
She looked back. "Of course. If Garis hated you, would you stop loving him?"
Thoughts ran rampant at the question. Images flooded his mind of his brilliant, strong, dedicated little brother, changed, in pain, lashing out at him, cursing, swearing to kill him…Gwaine paled and looked down, blinking rapidly, his stomach churning against itself. He would let himself die, too, he realized. He would defend himself and eventually let Garis kill him rather than potentially injure the boy, and Gwaine would never stop loving him. He swallowed, head shooting up again as he came to another realization. His gaze found the back of Arthur's head and he swallowed again.
Ragnell was staring at him, eyes even narrower than usual. "…I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you."
"No, it's…I'm glad you said that," he answered, forcing himself to look at her.
She nodded, glancing down again. "I'm not saying I agree with him," she said quickly. "I don't. You must believe that I support Avalon and Albion, no matter what…what else you may think of me." Gwaine found it easier to look at her without truly staring after that, pitying the poor hag. "And…I know I…I would understand, Sir Gwaine, if your loyalties did not lay with me after we were wed."
Where had he gotten that reputation? He'd never dabbled with other girls while courting one. Never. It stung, that all these people—even his friends, apparently—thought that of him, stung in a way that nothing else ever had. "Lady Ragnell," he said, voice icy, "Do you doubt my loyalty to Arthur?"
"Course not," she said with a snort. "Any clod could see you'd die for Albion."
"I believe in fidelity in all things."
Her beady eyes widened. "…This is…truly a sacrifice for you, isn't it?"
"Any clod could see I'd die for Albion," he answered. Her reaction was instantaneous—she sucked in a deep breath and flinched as though he'd struck her. Gawain blushed and fixed his gaze on Tristan, riding a good two horselengths in front of him. He wished there was a tavern nearby. This was worse than any three day political meeting.
After a minute of silence, Ragnell lifted her head again and stared at him, gripping her reigns just as hard as he'd held his before. "You're not as righteous as you think you are," she hissed, spit flying.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, hollow.
"You talk about judging people by their actions and motives, and not by their station in life. But you are disgusted by me. You judge me by something far worse than family or birthright." She took a deep breath, the liquid-y sound louder.
He snorted at her, blush growing. "Your actions haven't exactly been pure, my lady. You made me choose between my happiness and my king."
"How do you know you won't be happy?" she spat. "And what of my happiness?"
"You suggested this arrangement. If you didn't want it, why didn't you just give Arthur the answer?"
"It doesn't work like that!" she burst, making Tristan, Percival, and Galahad turn around to look at the two lagging behind. Tristan looked away again, tsking in pity, while Galahad was hiding a grin. He reached out and tapped Percival's arm, making a face at the curious knight. When the three began ignoring them again, Ragnell leaned toward Gawain, eyes flashing. "Magic racks debt, especially elf magic. You can't play with causes and effects like that. It's too dangerous."
Gawain tossed his head and stared at her. "Then why me? Why not ask for anything else at all?"
"Because—" she broke off, hissing again. "Forget it. I thought—it doesn't matter."
"No, tell me," the knight said, shifting as his horse nickered at the uncomfortable voices.
She growled in frustration, hands running over the jewels on her saddle again. "Because I felt like I already knew you," she creaked. "Arthur is adored by magic, and therefore, his knights are, too. There have been fairy eyes on you, on all of you, ever since you first made that vow. For those of us trapped behind Avalon's doors…hope, prophecy, and the stories of the kindness and greatness of Arthur's Circle carried us through the Purge and the breaking of the Sidhe Eldership."
Touched despite himself, Gwaine's blush returned and he refused to look at her. "That still doesn't explain why you insisted on wanting to marry me. If you didn't want this—"
"I'm—" She straightened in the saddle before letting her thick shoulders slump forward. She tried to speak several times, her mouth opening and closing several times before a strangled noise finally escaped. "…It's complicated."
"Oh, please—" Neither of them noticed that they were approaching the outskirts of Camelot until the gasps began. Gawain looked up and looked around, surprised again. "Sweet Camelot, how long were we talking?" he muttered as the walls outside the Lower Town and setting sun floated into view beyond the smaller village they walked through.
Ragnell scowled at the villagers. They had come to watch the knights riding through and stayed to stare in open-mouthed horror at the crone trailing behind the procession. She set her shoulders and snarled as a small child began to cry somewhere off to the side. Gwaine glanced toward her when he heard the small, angry sound, and only then noticed the gaping mouths surrounding the hideous woman. He watched, pensive, as she stared hard at the back of her horse's head and fixedly ignored the muttering and retching rising up from the townsfolk. They were almost through the village when some of the older children began openly jeering, slinging around words like witch and hag and disgusting frog. His thoughtful watching turned into something more when the children followed them out of the village, suddenly armed with an abundance of rotten vegetables. Ragnell hunched further down as the stinking projectiles filled the air, though it was impossible to make herself a smaller target. Gwaine hadn't been sure the laughing youths would really go through with it when they gathered their weapons. The first tomato to hit Ragnell's hunch surprised him, the second riled his temper. A cabbage and an egg flew past his ear as he turned his horse toward the ruffians, blocking their aim and giving them his most fierce look. The children froze and, after a few moments of nervous shuffling, ran back to their parents. When the knight pulled up on the woman's opposite side, she was staring at him, her watery eyes dark and piercing.
"…What?" he asked, shrugging.
She smiled, and this time he wasn't nearly as repulsed as before. "…Thank you."
He shrugged again. "No one deserves that."
"No one's ever done that before." She cocked her head at him, smile slipping a bit. "I'd say I'd gotten used to welcomes like that...but the truth is, it's still horrible." He grunted, blushing again. She slurped a string of drool back into her mouth and took a deep breath. "…I asked for you because for me, the battle isn't over yet," she said in a rush. "I needed a different sort of hope."
"That doesn't make any sense," Gwaine said gruffly.
After another quiet minute, she sighed. "…You're right, though," she rasped, blinking back a tear. "This…arranged marriage…I shouldn't have done this."
Gwaine's neck cracked as he whirled to her in surprise. She did not look up from the road, her shoulders still hunched. "I threatened you, and I forced you into this by threatening Arthur and Albion. It was wrong of me. I could have found another way, another thing to trade for Gromer's defeat, but I was…I was running out of time. It's not an excuse. There are no excuses. I am sorry. I absolve you of your vow, Sir Gwaine. I will not bind you to me. You do not have to marry me."
His eyebrows shot into his bangs as a sweeping feeling of freedom filled his stomach, chased back again by her previous words. "…But…what about the trade? Not getting something for nothing?"
She shrugged. "I'll manage. It'll be dangerous, but I'll manage."
Gwaine studied her expression, then glanced to Galahad, talking to Elyan and still hiding a smile, then to Merlin who, judging by the way he jumped and whipped his head around, had been studying the pair of them together for the entirety of the trip, then to Arthur who led the way. His thoughts twisted and tumbled through his head, fighting like clawed beasts. He'd never met a woman before that he really felt…comfortable enough with to even consider marrying. He dallied, yes, but it was dallying only. In fact, he'd felt more, and more often, in the last day with Ragnell than he had with anyone else. If they had met under different circumstances, and, Gwaine thought with a guilty prickling to the back of his neck because she was right before and he was ashamed, if he had been blind or Ragnell had looked less like a troll, perhaps they could have been friends. Friends was quite a nice word for it, in fact, and he knew few marriages started off on quite as good a footing as that. He started to speak, then paused, thinking back to another bit of conversation. "Nell, do you want to marry me?"
The question caught her off guard, and her eyes widened. "…I…yes. Yes, I think I do."
He nodded. "Then my vow stands." He almost smiled as she looked at him, disbelief shining on her wet face. "I gave you my word. I've never broken it before, and I'd rather not start now. Just…" he added as she started to smile. "One thing. No offense, but I'd really rather not have to kiss you."
She grinned, flicking a bit of tomato peel off her shoulder. "Then I shall see you at our wedding tomorrow."
It wasn't until he tried to go to bed that night that he realized he'd called her Nell.
If anyone wants to know, there ought to be about three chapters left in this story; the wedding, the wedding night, and a future shot that reveals the first part of something I've actually been foreshadowing since Galahad's intro in "The Secrets We Keep." If you know the legends, you know where it's going.