I don't own Merlin. If I did, Arthur would have been king a lot sooner. Revised April 25, 2017.
You…Always Surprise Me
Chapter 6 A Time for Humility
Arthur had had enough. His knights had no idea how humiliating it was to learn they'd thrown their matches against him to keep their prince and future king from harm. Arthur believed he'd earned his fighting reputation by studying, sweating, pushing himself harder than the next man. Being noble already offered many advantages for his class. Being royal guaranteed wild indulgence and as crowned prince and heir to the throne of Camelot, there was no way to avoid accommodating behaviors from his subjects.
On the battlefield, he could not afford, nor did he want, any such privileges. Lives depended on him; he had to be sure of his abilities. If he could not hone his skills on the training fields, he couldn't be sure of his worth. As long as his men continued to give him an edge, he'd never know if he was as great a warrior as many believed. He'd be living with a lie.
Disheartened that people respected his title more than they did him, Arthur concocted a wild and daring scheme with Merlin and Gwen to lay to rest his doubt. Dressed as a commoner in a ragged blue cloak, he set out on a personal mission to fight for his honor. The jousting tourney three days hence would provide the perfect setting to either play the fool or prove his valor once and for all.
Turning a simple farmer into a believable noble was not a simple thing. Arthur coached the humble man for hours on the mannerisms of knights, jousting and fighting techniques, and the expectations of court. Merlin and Gwen scoured the towns for the things that would make him at least look like a noble. The coin Arthur had to spend was jaw dropping, but satisfyingly worth it by the time they'd finished with him. All Sir William of Deira had to do was to face the crowd and charm the court. The rest was up to Arthur. He'd take the field and face the opponents. As an unknown, William's opponents would see him as fair game once the flags dropped and egos were at stake. With a full-face helmet concealing his identity, they'd give their best and so would he. Arthur had to win this tournament. If he could not prove to them he was capable of winning his battles on his own merit, then he was neither the man, the warrior, nor the leader he believed himself to be.
Staying with Gwen was another matter entirely; much more terrifying than worrying if William could maintain his cover. Alone with her, the world outside seemed far away and he glimpsed into a quiet life without the responsibility of a kingdom on his shoulders. Two days he'd danced around her in the small space, taking extremes not to brush against her firm body. He'd said some things over the past few months, shared deep and meaningful glances with her, and even embraced her in her time of need. If he only had the guts to tell her how he felt about her, now would be that time. But to what end? Thousands of years of tradition could not be undone overnight, nor could his clueless airs of self-importance. Gwen had no problem reminding him of either.
Two arguments they'd had today that mostly revolved around his behavior. She called him a hypocrite, a spoiled child who thought only of himself, a noble with the arrogance to pretend to be less than what he was. He was born to privilege, clung to indulgence, and taking advantage of her hospitality ingrained his psyche and expected of him. Part of him still saw her as a servant instead of an equal in his caper and that was a blow to his heart and his pride. Trying to deceive her in an effort to make amends only proved that he was a fool after all.
His first attempt of showing his gratitude should not have started with a lie. He couldn't admit to Merlin that she'd seen through his so-called noble aim, that more was at stake than his pride. Arthur really did want to impress her, but he'd gone about it the wrong way. He could show the world how great a warrior he was, but to express his deeper feelings would mean he'd have to open his heart and there he had no real experience. As she spun away from him with so much disdain, he reached out to stop her and gently turned her back to him.
"Guinevere," he said softly, his heart aching for disappointing her once again. "I know I have much to learn. There are some things I'm terrible at-cooking being one of them." The lump of humility stuck in his throat and his mind dug for sentiments buried within him. "But also, knowing what to say to someone I care about." It was more than simply caring for her. The attraction was undeniable, so forbidden to burn that it hurt when he touched her.
He would have kissed her if Merlin hadn't barged in, alarmed and spooked. Instead, Arthur jerked his arm away as if already guilty of doing it; startled, to say the least, as Merlin gave them news of an assassin in Camelot with sights on his noble head. The three of them spent a little time together in somber conversation clearing the dinner remains before Gwen returned to her duties at the castle and Arthur and Merlin spent the rest of the evening rearranging Arthur's new sleeping area so that Gwen could have the bed tonight.
He tried to remain awake after Merlin left, wait for her return, talk with her longer. He'd ended up prowling the small space like a caged animal worrying about what he'd implied to her, the assassin lurking somewhere in the shadows, tomorrow's final match, William, and a bunch of other random things that muddled his thoughts. He would have expelled his burst of energy on the training ground, or in the courtyard if he hadn't been on his so-called-mission. At least there, he could take out his frustrations on a practice dummy or Merlin. Arthur sighed and eyed the cramped space that would be his bed tonight and clicked his tongue. He might as well try to rest since he was unable to do anything else.
He didn't hear Gwen when she returned, and when he woke the next morning, she was already up and quietly moving about in the candle glow. She was radiant, the sheer curtains he could see through accentuating her already angelic qualities. Her hair was pinned again today, though a few strands haloed her lovely face and fell down her slender neck. He appreciated the different gowns she wore of late, vibrant designs and color; tighter fitting, displaying curves and supple skin that led the eye to full, round breasts. Arthur's moan was throaty, and she may have heard before he swallowed it with shame and humiliation. His yearning for her had tripled since this venture began and his whole body was on fire. Arthur had no choice but to remain there else she'd see his desire, too.
"Good morning," Gwen called out from over her shoulder, continuing with whatever she was doing.
"Good morning," he replied, his normally deep voice huskier and somewhat rushed. Perhaps she'd think he was dragging himself out of sleep, which he was, his senses were still a bit groggy. Arthur yawned to perpetuate the pretense and stretched in his limited confines. One more yawn and Arthur forced himself to sit up. Pulling himself to his feet and then tangling them in the covers, he stumbled past the curtains, wide-eyed and flushed in his struggle to gain his balance. Flicking hair from his eyes and pressing down his crumbled clothes with sweaty palms, he relaxed when he realized that Gwen had not noticed his clumsy entrance. She set a breakfast bowl next to a pot of hearty porridge and a loaf of warm bread on the table devoid of a setting for two.
"Where's yours," he asked, genuinely concerned, raking his hair a few times, and then rolling his aching shoulders, a hand going to the right one to work out the kinks. He moaned again from the painful pleasure of it and twisted his waist.
"That is mine," Gwen said, pouring warmed water into a larger bowl at the end of the table and placing a well-worn cloth next to it.
"Oh." Arthur's brows lifted into golden strands as he dropped his arm. Gwen set the kettle down, then crossed the short distance to the door as she threw him a slightly dismissive glance.
"I'll give you a few moments," she said, leaving him alone as she walked outside.
Arthur sighed but went straight to business, as some things had become routine living here. To say the least, some things were just natural. Putting the chamber pot out the back door was one chore that repulsed him, but Gwen would be left to do it if he didn't. He scrambled over his mattress and hurried to the basin. She would return in a few more minutes and he wanted to be dressed and ready.
Arthur picked up the cloth Gwen had left for him and stirred the water, an infusion of lemon and herbs wafting to his nostrils and easing some of the tension. She'd prepared his meals the entire time except for last night. It was a disaster in the end, but surely that was nothing compared to someone trying to kill him. He deserved a little latitude … Didn't he? He squeezed most of the water out of the towel and then washed his teeth and tongue. He submerged the cloth again, wringing it and then scrubbed his face, neck, and as much of his shoulder blades and chest as his reach and clothes would allow.
He'd just stamped his boots on as Gwen slipped in, her skirts swishing in the quiet as she twirled to close the door. Sitting at her place at the table, she snapped the serviette open and placed it gingerly across her lap. She exhaled as if exhausted, and then waited. Arthur adjusted his tunic and belt, unsure of what he should do next as moments ticked by. Gwen cocked her head and then shaking it, diverted her eyes as she bite into her lower lip to hide her amusement. She looked back at him, her face lacking any kind of empathy.
"You have figured out where the dishes are by now, haven't you?"
Arthur creased his brow, his lips puckering so predictably that Gwen's lips twitched. Of course, he knew where the dishes were. He'd fumbled around the kitchen last night, searching the hutches for the basics while waiting for Merlin to return. He'd found everything stored in a cupboard: a few cups, bowls, plates, and spoons, perfectly stacked. Arthur swaggered toward the cupboard. The hinges creaked as he opened the door and extracted a bowl and spoon. He clicked his tongue in triumph and grinned as he opened the hutch and took out a candle and stick. Sitting opposite of her, he used the fire from the one candle on the table and lit the one he'd brought over.
Gwen smiled warmly as he gazed upon her, the candle glow lighting her eyes. It was an odd sensation being with her there, just the two of them, no fear of anyone seeing them. Was this how it was with husbands and wives; how they shared all things and looked upon each other with love? This was as close to normal as he was going to get and much more appealing than the normalcy he sought amongst his men. Everything about her was invigorating, no airs were allowed, and he could be himself with her. She was perfect. Gwen lifted the ladle, but Arthur gently relieved her of it.
"I'll be serving you this time," he said, spooning a scoop into his bowl and then handing it to her, their fingers brushing in the exchange. His cheeks heated as much as hers did, their hands touching again when she passed her bowl to him. This time electricity passed through him. "Thank you."
They ate in silence, comfortable in the glow of their surroundings and the secrets in their hearts. What more could he say to her anyway? He couldn't tell her how beautiful she was. Or how empty his life had been until Ealdor. Or of how much his chest hurt just thinking about her and knowing there were boundaries he dared not cross. Tradition demanded he treat her as a subject, use her as he pleased, invest no emotions, and never forget his duty. Nobles had their reasons to keep the classes separated, fierce in the fight to keep their lines pure, never to be tainted with commoner blood. By the time they finished, Arthur wasn't so comfortable anymore. Gwen insisted on clearing the table herself and he silently retrieved his cloak and satchel. He adjusted his belt, his cloak as Gwen came before him.
"One more match," he said with a half-smile, "and the tournament will be over." They were standing close and Gwen chuckled softly, a bit sadly, though. Perhaps she was ready for it to end, for him to leave and get out of her space. He wouldn't blame her. He'd been a complete boar almost the entire time.
"You can go back to being Prince Arthur." She didn't want him to be Prince Arthur by the look in her eyes and part of him did not want to either. But he had responsibilities that a man like him could not ignore.
Arthur bobbed his head, a reluctant smile on his face. He stared at her too long, unable to take his eyes off her sad countenance while she fidgeted with a kerchief. She shook herself to break his gaze and stepped closer with the offering.
"Um, I thought you might wear it-for luck." She held it out between them, her fingertips almost touching his center.
Arthur's face softened and he smiled a little broader. He'd received many tokens before, had worn them all when he was younger. Fine linens and silks with bordered lace or elaborate embroidery, perfumed, pressed, and perfect. This one had no frills, no eye-catching designs, or even color. It probably only carried her scent as well, and Arthur's mouth watered thinking about the pure joy he'd get just having it close to his heart. It was the sweetest favor he'd ever received, one that he would cherish forever.
"Thank you," he said, taking hold of the cloth that she held onto. Their knuckles lightly brushed before he claimed the kerchief with his other hand and lifted it out of hers. He looked at her as never before to anyone else, the affection for her once again filling an emptiness he'd purposefully sealed so long ago.
Gwen was jittery and he understood why. Their short time together had been intimate, revealing, and frankly, it was one of the happiest he'd ever had, mistakes and all. Her crash course on humility opened his eyes to see just how shallow his quest for equality was. He appreciated that and he wanted to be the good king that Gwen so desired. He didn't want to be valiant just on the battlefield, but also honorable in his rule. It could be his legacy, something different from his predecessors, including his father. Her lessons were what he'd been missing, what he needed in his life. A strong woman to stand up to him and tell him when he was wrong. To love him despite his flaws. Warmth radiated through him, the deep desire to be closer to her making him light-headed.
Arthur's smile widened as Gwen flashed a nervous one. His instincts urged him to take away her anxiety and he leaned in. She was special and so her first kiss had to be. This was not a time for base desires to take over, but a chance to prove how much care, respect, and affection he had for her. He pressed his lips to hers, the softness of her mouth, the sweetness of her taste sent sensual ripples of pleasure through him. The sun streaming through the window heated his skin as much as she warmed his soul. His heart beat furiously, but he kept the pressure steady in a lingering kiss. It was the only contact between their bodies, and as he pulled away, his lids heavy, his mouth tingling, Gwen was drifting back into her own space as if some other force was pulling her from his lips.
Rules could not regulate his heart and for a brief insane moment, he dared to think of her as more than a servant. His mind took him to places a prince was forbidden to tread, though he'd rest in that dream for months now. Arthur was bred to marry nobility, expected to continue the line with a family of proper breeding. His heart now shouted something else and now he was jittery, his eyes darting away from her glossy ones. He'd crossed the boundary and had dragged her along with him.
This could only lead to sorrow for both of them, but they'd started something that couldn't be ignored or pursued at this moment. Arthur looked down, his hand already gripping the straps of his satchel, hoping Gwen didn't see the nervous shutter he tried to ward off.
"I must go." I'm sorry, he wanted to say, but instead adjusted the strap over his shoulder and turned to leave, pulling the blue cloak over his head and retreating from her home. He was not only a fool, but also a coward. He was in love with this woman and there was nothing he could do about it. It was a serious matter and his father would be furious, would not allow such a union. She may not even be safe if the king found out. Arthur valued her friendship, her guidance, and as long as she was willing to give it, it would have to be enough.
Many years passed. Many trials were set before them. Their hearts would break and soar. Tragedy will strike and tear them apart. It would not be until her return from exile that she'd discover he'd carried her maiden's favor tucked in a pocket and close to his heart from the day she'd given it to him.*
*The Sorrows of Pendragons, by Doberler, Chapter 11.