The first time they encounter one another, it's under a bed. His bed. He is hiding, she is sweeping. He is eleven. She is ten.
He is Prince Arthur, sole heir of King Uther Pendragon of Camelot.
She is Guinevere, only daughter of Tom the Blacksmith and maidservant to the King's ward, 12-year-old Lady Morgana.
Gwen hums as she sweeps the prince's rooms, paying no mind to the fact that his quarters are larger than the house she shares with her father and brother.
She's been Morgana's maid for six months now, and has proven herself to be a hard-working and trustworthy girl, keeping busy with general tasks when her mistress does not require her services.
General tasks like sweeping the prince's rooms, for example. He doesn't have his own manservant yet.
I pity whoever eventually gets that unlucky job, Gwen thinks, and immediately feels guilty for it. She only knows the prince through second-hand accounts from Morgana. And while Morgana rarely has nice things to say, Gwen feels disloyal for thinking ill of her future king.
Certainly she's seen him, there's no avoiding that. She's served at dinners where he's been in attendance. But she's never encountered him personally.
She makes her way to the prince's sleeping chamber, where she sets her broom aside for a moment to better draw the curtains back.
Who did this? she thinks, frowning as she adjusts the curtains. It looks like it was just torn open by a careless child, honestly. She picks up her broom and looks at the drapes. "Better," she declares softly.
She sweeps the area around the large bed, a bed that is larger than the bed she shares with her brother. It's larger than their bed plus their father's bed combined, in fact.
But he's the prince. That's how things are. Ever thorough, she reaches beneath the bed with the broom, and—
Guinevere jumps back, her broom clattering to the floor.
There's someone under the bed.
Slowly, she crouches down and peeks. "Oh!" she exclaims softly. "Forgive me, my lord, I was just—"
"Shh," he shushes her.
"My lord?" she whispers.
She looks at him then. Really looks. He doesn't look happy at all. He's pouting, and doing a grand job of it.
"Why are you hiding?" she asks. Her knees are aching, and she unthinkingly slides them out from beneath her until she is lying on the floor on her stomach, peering at the prince who is pouting under his bed with his arms crossed over his chest.
"I'm hiding from Father. Honestly, who else would I hide from?" he huffs.
"But why?" she asks again. "My lord," she adds.
He finally looks at her. He's seen her around. She's kind of new. Morgana's maid, that's who she is.
Her wide brown eyes seem to see right through him, and he notices that there is a dark curl escaped from one of her braids that brushes her skin.
"He wants to punish—"
The sound of his door opening stops his words.
"Arthur?" King Uther's voice booms throughout the seemingly-empty bedchamber. His footsteps grow closer.
Guinevere's eyes widen. I'm lying on the floor!
"Arthur, stop behaving like a child…" The king's footsteps stop as he opens a wardrobe, looking for Arthur.
Then they resume, marching closer. Gwen looks at Arthur, panicked.
"Arthur…" Uther sighs, exasperated. He's getting closer.
Arthur quickly turns, reaches out, and grabs Guinevere, hauling her under the bed with him, his hand over her mouth to muffle any surprised sounds she might make.
Gwen recovers from her surprise fairly quickly, but her heart continues to pound. Her eyes seem glued to his as he silently implores her to stay quiet, to not give away his hiding place. Their hiding place, now.
"Arthur, this is ridiculous," the king's measured tones call out. He's getting closer.
Gwen reaches up and slowly peels Arthur's hand away from her mouth. Something in her eyes tells him that she won't give him away. He moves his hand from her mouth, but the other one stays locked around her waist, still holding her slender body flush against his.
Then her eyes widen. Broom! She mouths at him, and he turns his head to see her broom lying discarded on the floor.
He opens his mouth in a silent umm, but they are saved by another voice.
"What is it, Sir Kay?"
"The council is waiting for you, my lord." Sir Kay's calm voice drifts to them from the doorway of Arthur's chambers.
"Very well. Oh, hello… Leon, is it? Sir Kay, your boy is getting tall," Uther says, his voice retreating.
"Thank you, Sire," young Leon's voice answers. "Sire, have you seen Prince Arthur?"
"No, I haven't." The king's voice is curt. "And if you see him, he is to go to the stables and help the servants clean. He is being punished."
"Oh…" Leon says.
Gwen knows Leon. Her mother was a maid in his family's home until she passed away, just a year ago. She knows Leon quite well, and she knows that he is as transparent as they come and cannot tell a lie to save his life.
"Leon, what do you know about this?" Sir Kay's voice asks. "Should I be sending you to the stables as well?"
"Yes, sir," Leon's voice is soft. Guinevere looks up at Arthur. He looks away guiltily.
"Well, then, get to it. If you see the prince, take him with you," Sir Kay orders.
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Sorry, Sire."
"Thank you for your honesty, young man. You will make a fine knight one day. But next time do think about the consequences of your actions before you and my son decide to tie a bunch of bed linens together and tie one end to a pig."
Arthur risks a peek at Guinevere. She's giving him a look that clearly says That was you?
"Yes, Sire, I will."
They hear Leon's footsteps retreat quickly down the corridor.
"He is a good boy, my lord," Sir Kay comments.
"Yes, I know. So is Arthur. But they are boys…" Uther's voice drifts off as he leaves for the council meeting.
"It took us hours to clean those sheets again," Gwen says, squirming out of Arthur's grasp and scrambling out from under the bed, brushing furiously at her skirts. Her body feels cold now after having been pressed against the prince's warmth.
The prince slides out from beneath the bed. Now his clothes are dusty and he feels doubly guilty for his behavior. His best friend is being punished for something that was his idea while he was hiding like a coward.
And now this pretty maid is angry with him as well. Why do I care what she thinks? She's just a maid. He tries to shrug it off, but can't. She's returned to her sweeping, her back facing him in a rather pointed manner.
"What's your name?" he asks.
"Guinevere, my lord. But everyone calls me Gwen," she says, glancing over her shoulder at him.
She thinks I'm a coward for not owning up to what I did. Again, he doesn't understand why that bothers him.
"Thank you for not giving me away, Guinevere," he says. He finds he likes her name. Gwen isn't right. She's definitely Guinevere.
"You should thank Sir Kay," she says. "It would have been ten times worse if your father had seen my broom on the floor." I would have been fired without a second thought, she realizes.
"Um…" Arthur says, feeling awkward. He knows how it would have looked if Uther had looked under the bed and found him holding Morgana's maid in his arms, regardless of the fact that it was completely innocent. "I should go…"
"You probably should," she says softly, pointedly not saying you had better go to the stables.
Suddenly he's right beside her. "I'm sorry, Guinevere," he whispers, kisses her cheek, and disappears.
Gwen stands, still as a statue, her hand on her cheek long after the prince has disappeared.
Hours later, Gwen is carrying a load of Morgana's laundry to her chambers, and she sees Prince Arthur walking towards his room.
He is filthy and there are bits of straw stuck in his hair and clothes.
As he passes her, he catches her eye for the most fleeting of moments, and he thinks he sees her smile.