For Kimmiky, my muse, my inspiration for this story. Updated 10/28/2016
I don't own Merlin. If I did, it would still be on the air and Arthur would find out about Merlin's magic early in the series.
You…Always Surprise Me
Chapter 1 Tunic and Trousers
Prince Arthur was sure when it happened. He was even sure how it happened. One moment she was part of the background, Morgana's maidservant, someone, he'd held no strong opinion on, unnoticeable, invisible. Of course, he'd thought her beautiful, demure and unassertive (at least in the public arena), yet a loyal companion to Morgana for nearly seven years. That was the extent of her existence to him. An entirely proper servant.
The next moment she was giving him a verbal lashing on the scarcity of the food shared by the poor people in Ealdor, especially now when they were struggling to keep what little they had from pillagers terrorizing their village. He was being downright arrogant, so used to sumptuous food and rich delicacies, that his repulsive reaction to anything less was a natural response. And Guinevere's innate reaction was to make no qualms confronting him about his deplorable behavior.
The entitled noble had complained about having to eat a bowl of gruel (or was it porridge?), Arthur wasn't entirely sure which it was actually. But that was all they'd eaten since they'd arrived at the village, and he just couldn't stomach any more. He would certainly hunt after the conflict ended, even if all he could find were rabbits. The warrior in him needed proper sustenance and sickly sweet gruel day in and day out wasn't going to do. It was no wonder Merlin was so skinny if this was what he ate on a regular basis.
"Food is scarce for these people," Gwen severely admonished the prince. "You shouldn't turn your nose up at it!"
No one reprimanded the crowned prince like that, especially a servant. Well, no one other than Merlin. And Morgana, except she didn't count since she was a noble, and had always talked at him as a rival sibling. Prince Arthur's blond brows drew together slightly, his lips puckered into its natural pout, weirdly stunned and slightly embarrassed expressed in his sapphire eyes.
Guinevere's long dark curls were pinned up, a few strands falling into her light olive face and accentuated the curves of her face. She stood there, now pensive, regretting her outburst, forgetting her station, and waited for him to harangue her into submission. She was the daughter of a blacksmith, a servant, and Merlin's best friend. When she chewed her lip, lowered dark her eyes, and started babbling her contrition, he smiled at her fidgeting, and thought she was adorable, really. She turned to leave, but Arthur called after her.
"Gwen." The maiden kept trying to apologize and retreat.
"Guinevere," Arthur said, his voice husky, but sincere. The way he emphasized her name stopped her in her tracks. It held so much power and passion in it that it stunned her in a disturbing way. It moved something inside of her. Gwen turned toward him, her whole demeanor pensive. "Thank you. You're right." He conceded one more thing. "And you were right to speak up. I should have listened to you and Morgana." He found it easy to be truthful with her about their odds of their success and the possibility of the loss of life in the coming conflict and added soberly. "We're going to need all the help we could get."
Gwen rushed forward, but stopped a respectable distance from the heir apparent. "We'll be fine." He could tell that she truly believed that by the look in her eyes and the assurance in her voice.
"How can you be so sure?" He wanted to share her belief. What Merlin had said yesterday rang true as any of his training instructors would attest. He had to show confidence in the prospect of victory and the men, farmers as they all were had little to no weapon or fighting skills. Even his crash course in basic fighting techniques was not enough to give them a chance with a ratio of 3:1 against an experienced, barbaric gang of forty men raging death and destruction on their village all just to steal their meager harvest.
"Because I have faith in you," she said easily and with conviction, closing the distance with a few more steps. Arthur pinned her with hood eyes, baffled that what she said actually mattered to him. Did she just express hidden affection far too familiar for a servant to her master? But then just as quickly as she'd said it had she began stammering out a correction. "I mean, we all do." Gwen blushed severely, quite embarrassed of the slip.
He looked at her with a guarded expression, and then he thanked her again. They both smiled awkwardly, or maybe they grimaced to cover forbidden thoughts. Arthur wasn't sure. Staring at each other longer than they should have, Gwen nodded her head in subservience and turned to leave, a hand going to her mouth as she did so.
Arthur watched her go, his eyes trailing her until she was out of sight, and then focused on all she had said. And that set off another chain of emotions that was new to Arthur. He smiled, and looked at the bowl of gruel. No, porridge. Gruel was thinner than porridge. What does it matter? But he truly admired her honesty. He liked her kind of spirit. And quite frankly, she had caught him off guard, had discomposed him completely with that slip of her tongue, and he knew that it had shown on his face.
And she had stood up to him, in her brown tunic and trousers tucked in soft boots, a far cry from the simple commoner gowns she wore, but still very appealing, almost arousing. She had had enough daring to put him in check and silence his arrogance when anyone else would have agreed with him and offered up their own invectives as well, sniveling with acquiescence. A boot-licker, as Merlin would call them, noble or not. She was the daughter of a blacksmith, small in stature, yet so very large in the qualities of being morally good, and pure in heart. As strong, steady, and sure as her father's own forge and just as fiery. Distracted, Arthur took a spoonful of the sweet, sticky porridge.
Gwen had shown valor and integrity and in that moment, he suddenly didn't see Gwen, the servant. He saw Guinevere, a strong and valiant beautiful woman for the first time after all these years. He remembered the compassion she always displayed for others, knew of her fierce loyalty to Camelot's lesser citizens, and envied her conviction for justice to all. He saw her beauty. Yesterday, twice, she had said that the women should be allowed to fight right along with the men, so he already knew that she possessed courage of knights. She caught him off guard indeed.
He'd had privilege and luxury all his life. It was all that he knew. He took for granted his birthright and enjoyed all the liberties entailed therein. It shouldn't be expected of him to do anything beneath him, to expect anything less. He was a Pendragon after all. He would be king someday who would have kingly things to do. But wait. Did not being king mean to recognize the value of men, and even the simplest of things? Though Camelot flourished, it was still in contradiction to the state of her people. The most of them were poor, this village's hardships a normality. How were they not as important? Guinevere recognized the hypocrisy. Those substantial traits that she possessed was surely lacking in him.
Ealdor was not part of his kingdom, but it was where Merlin's mother lived, and they were under duress by the brutal assaults of bandits. The boy's home village, full of life and love and poverty, and his beloved home nonetheless needed help; help that Arthur's father had callously denied in the name of politics. He was here in fact to prove that they deserved to live in peace. He was here to help them fight for the right to grow their crops and raise their families without fear. He was here because of Merlin. A servant. No. A friend, though he wouldn't admit that to Merlin or anyone else. But she had left the security and comforts of Camelot to fight for her friend and risk her life, too. He respected and admired that in her.
And now she made him feel ashamed for turning his royal nose up at the humble meal Hunith served him. Gwen had more grace and common sense than he gave her credit for, and cared far more than any noble ever would, including himself once upon a time. Their contrast was so appealing and that thought attracted him to her even more so.
She liked him, too; at least on some level he could feel that. She was a breath of fresh air, and he allowed her words to wrap around him like a warm blanket. He desired to learn more about her and remain blissfully ignorant of where this path could lead.
And so he would show his humility; that he could indeed listen and learn by eating the entire bowl of porridge and appreciate the meal when it was served again. He looked at the bowl in his hand right then, and found it empty. He smiled. Porridge, he decided. Definitely porridge.
She continued to take his breath away, astonishing to him, refreshing even, and had become more than just a servant to him, especially, later on, when they clasped their wrists as comrades-in-arms and he'd asked her if she was frightened. Her head held high, her eyes full of resolve, she'd replied, "Not in the least," and promptly left the ranks to command her post as fearless as any other trained warrior. She wasn't afraid of the fight to come, afraid perhaps for the people they had come to protect, but not of the fight itself, and that, too, endeared her to him. In a jarring moment of truth, Arthur would not deny that this was when things changed for him and a servant in tunic and trousers.