A TRICK OF THE LIGHT

Chapter Thirty Three

"I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end."
(William Blake)

-x0x-

Given the overwhelming strangeness of the last few days, Gwaine was heartily relieved to learn that there was a far more practical explanation for the vanishing townsfolk of Camelot. When he entered the courtyard with Hengest, he found his way blocked by a heaving mass of locals and refugees, all of whom were being guided into the mighty citadel through every available entrance. Gwaine knew in his heart who had to be responsible for such a bold, decisive act of kindness.

That person was not Lord Agravaine.

Forcing his way through the crowd, Gwaine felt a perverse kind of pleasure to see the frowning, fur-clad nobleman at the top of the main steps. Lord Aggravation was clearly displeased with the whole situation and doing his best to hide it. Gwaine gave him an insolent wave which did not go unnoticed. The lord seemed even more put out to see his nemesis returning safely. When he recognised the horse that Gwaine was leading, however, his red cheeks grew pale and his frown twisted into a very different expression. It almost looked like… could it be hope?

Interesting, thought the knight, and tucked the observation into a corner of his mind, to be mulled over when he was warm and safe, and far less sober. Ale provided excellent lubrication for a rusty brain…

"What are you doing with King Arthur's horse?"

The sharp voice came from somewhere behind him and he sighed at his own rotten luck. Pausing only to slide a cheerful mask over his weary features, he turned and gave a sweeping, one-armed bow. "Ah, Bree. Just the person I wanted to see."

"You're a liar," Bree said bluntly. "Where's Fortunata?"

"'Where's the king', I think you mean?"

"Hardly. The king is your responsibility. I just work in the stables – remember? You lofty knights gallop around the countryside at breakneck speed on your crazy quests, never giving our horses a second thought. I'm there at the end of the day to help them recover. So I'll ask you again – where's Fortunata?"

"Recovering," snapped Gwaine. Pain, cold and weariness all combined to rob him of his equanimity at last. In the distance, he could hear a long, low rumble of thunder. "In a cave. With a host of villagers who no longer have a village of their own. Maybe you'd like to give them a second thought, if you can spare one? We saved them all, as it happens, on one of our crazy quests. At the risk of our lives. Does that answer your question?"

Instantly, he knew that he had gone too far. Bree's lips turned white as she pressed them together and spoke not a word. Stepping back, she folded her arms across her chest like a barrier between them. Breathless, he waited. I'm in the eye of the storm, he thought urgently. When the strike came, there would be no mercy.

"You should be in bed," she said at last, to his surprise.

Humour, as always, took the vanguard, leaping forward to protect him. "Is that an offer…? No." Gwaine caught himself and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Bree. Truly sorry. I gave up the right to jest about such things with you." He twisted the long reins regretfully. "My bad habits have always been my downfall."

Bree stepped up to him again, so close this time that he swore he could hear the hitching of her breath within her throat. She laid her work-worn fingers over his, but he was so bitterly cold by now that he could not even feel her touch. In his raw state, this saddened him more than he cared to admit.

"I'll take Hengest," Bree stated firmly. "You've done enough, it seems." When he stared at her, speechless, she continued. "Find Gaius. You look like death."

"Ah," Gwaine murmured. "Flattery." Bree's tone was still just as sharp as ever but her gaze was almost warm – and was that a twitch of amusement at the corner of her mouth? He ducked his head, hardly daring to hope that things were starting to thaw between them. "How little respect you have for my knightly position, milady."

"I believe I have the same respect for it that you do, Sir Gwaine." Her words became a parting shot, declaring her to be the winner of their verbal confrontation. Peeling the reins from his numb fingers, she turned and led her charge away without a single backward glance – for none was needed.

"And what did she mean by that?" Gwaine protested to the world in general.

When no answer was forthcoming (not that he expected one), the knight gave a heavy sigh and pressed on through the crowd in a harried, zigzag manner that slowly took him in the right direction. Light streamed from every window and a flight of wisps circled overhead between the snowflakes. The whole world was brought into sharp relief, bright and painful to behold after so much darkness.

Skirting Lord Agravaine – for he had no energy left to fence with privilege and insolence – Gwaine reached the citadel at last and slipped through the doorway unnoticed, only to find that things inside were even more chaotic. People filled the hallways, sweating and steaming like cattle in the marketplace. The clash of their urgent conversations filled his head and made him feel so dizzy that he could barely stand upright. He reached out to the nearby wall and closed his eyes in a vain attempt to right himself and block out the insanity. What on earth was ailing him? Only a week ago, such a scene would have caused him no difficulty. More than that, he would have been invigorated; driven. Useful, even. How, then, could he be so unmanned tonight by a few rowdy townsfolk that he was forced to cling to his new best friend, the wall, to keep himself from falling over?

"You're a fool," he grumbled bitterly.

"Why yes, I am," said an all-too-familiar voice.

Words failed the knight at last. He had travelled so far, with such urgency. Now that the moment was here and the quest at its end, all he could do was stare at the man in confusion.

"Is there something amiss with my face?" Robin asked him gently.

Gwaine shook his head; no.

The fool reached out and touched his shoulder. He tried not to flinch and, to his credit, Robin showed no sign that he had noticed. "Perchance you need assistance," he said in his strange, archaic way. It wasn't a question.

Dumbly, Gwaine let himself be led through the crowd, up the stairs and all the way back to his very own door at last, like the end of a bad dream. He touched it with swollen fingers that could feel the roughness of the wood as they began to thaw. "Home. Should never have left you," he murmured.

"You did what you felt was right," Robin offered. "Who in this wild, impossible world can do more?" He blinked and his gaze shifted, almost as though he were looking at something – or somewhere – quite different.

"Sir Follow-the-rules and Sir Follow-your-heart.
Where the two differ,
There, they must part."

"That's me, then," Gwaine sighed. "Sir Follow-your-heart." His tone became maudlin. "Trouble is, the others followed me. And look what happened to them…"

Robin opened the door and pushed him into the room. "They're safe and you know it," he said firmly. "So that's quite enough of that. Self-pity never won the day, for he is not a knight at all. Drink up."

"What?" Gwaine sank down onto his bed and stared at the fool who was really a sorcerer.

"Did I not make you a promise? Stone walls, ale and conversation. I always keep my word, Sir Knight. Here we are within stone walls. Now comes the drink, for your wits are duller than your blade right now and they need to be sharp for the work ahead of us." Robin waved his hand towards the nightstand, where a fat jug sat with two large tankards. Gwaine took a deep, appreciative sniff and managed a wobbly grin.

"I knew I liked you," he said gruffly.

"Then you like me still?" Robin's manner was calm but there was a look of uncertainty in his eyes that Gwaine had never seen before. He poured a measure of ale and passed it to the knight. His hand was shaking slightly.

"You certainly know how to make a persuasive argument." Gwaine chuckled. "Robin, don't you understand? I couldn't care less that you have magic. In fact, I'm glad of it. You say you're here to help? Think I'll take you at your word." He downed three quarters of the drink in one enthusiastic gulp. "Will you hear me out…?" His eyes narrowed. "Or do you know exactly what I'm going to say?"

"That would make our conversation quite redundant, don't you think? Fortunately, I neither have the skill of foresight, nor do I wish for it." Robin bit his lip. "I am, however, good at riddles."

"Oh really? I hadn't noticed. And so?"

"And so I know exactly what you want from me. Yet I cannot provide it…"

Gwaine's face fell. He poured himself another ale, and one for Robin. "Then Camelot is doomed."

"Indeed, it is not, Sir Knight, or I myself would not be here. There is a way, but your help is needed and so I urge you once again, drink up to the very bottom of the mug this time."

Never one to refuse such a request, Gwaine drained his tankard to the dregs, which were bitter and thick. A subtle warmth began to stir within his gut; not unpleasant, but strange indeed. "What…?" he mumbled.

"It is strength – only borrowed, I fear, and you will fall hard when it fails, but its measure should be quite enough for the task at hand. A simple magic. Do you approve?"

"Wholeheartedly," Gwaine exclaimed, and reached for the jug once more...

-x0x-

Time passed. The warmth spread, and he began to feel more like himself than he had felt for longer than he cared to admit – not weeks, but months. Maybe years, even. He flexed the fingers of his injured arm. "Incredible. You should peddle this to Gaius."

"He and I have had a conversation…" Robin grinned. "Or two. His store of herbs and other potions has been somewhat… amplified. Though I must say, his knowledge was already quite impressive. Gaius is a man of many talents."

Almost as though their use of his name had conjured him, the physician burst into the room. No knock, no polite request to be admitted. Gwaine felt the colour drain from his cheeks again, but he stood up and faced his fate with courage. "Gaius," he said. "Do come in."

"I don't want your flippancy." Gaius seemed surprised to find Robin there too, but ignored him for now. His target was Gwaine, and he aimed with cold precision. "I want you to understand the consequences of your actions. You pretend to think of others, but you only think about yourself. Sir Gwaine, stuck in bed, while others ride for glory and adventure? You couldn't bear it. And so they followed, as you should have known they would, risking everything, because they are your friends. You're lucky that Merlin survived, or you would know my wrath indeed and there would be no salvation for you, young man. But where is Arthur? Where is the king you are sworn to protect? You left him behind, and Camelot needs him."

Gwaine longed to lower his head, but he kept his chin high and his gaze was firmly fixed on Gaius, pleading for the man to hear his words, and believe them. "You're right, of course," he said. "I know it. I know myself, after all, much better than you think. Selfish? Yes, indeed, and self-pitying too, when I have no friends to snap me out of it." He risked a quick nod in Robin's direction. "I thought I was helping, but I only made a mess. Story of my… ah, see now, there I go again. I'm sorry for it, Gaius; truly. I never meant to hurt Merlin, or anyone else. But you can believe me when I say that Arthur is safe right now. Much safer than the rest of us. And that, at least, is something good. So, give me my punishment. I'll take it gladly." Instinct drove him to his knees in front of the old man. "And please, forgive me, Gaius."

He lowered his head at last, and the curtain of his hair fell down to hide his face. As he waited, he could hear the pounding of his heart within his chest, and the quick, high breathing of Robin somewhere close above him.

"Words," Gaius muttered at last. "Words are easy."

"Not always for me," Gwaine promised, glancing up again. "Not words like these. Self-pity does not make friends easily. Shame on me for risking them."

Gaius stepped closer and held out a gnarled hand. "Dramatic. But effective. Maybe… maybe I'll forgive you. In a day or so, perhaps…" The smile he gave was small but genuine. "For goodness' sake, Gwaine. You really are…"

"A fool?" the knight said, surging to his feet with gladness.

Robin laughed out loud and drew them both together in a welcome hug. "Then fools are we, all three!" he sang out merrily.

"Speak for yourself." Gaius raised an eyebrow.

Turns out there's magic in friendship, Gwaine thought, so relieved that he could hardly bear it. The knot in his gut had gone for good and he was strong again. Now it was time for action.

-x0x-

A/N: Apologies! I never meant to be away for so long. Life can be ridiculously busy – but I'm back now, and I fully intend to finish this story, as promised. If you are still following, thank you very much indeed. And if you are new to the tale, I hope you enjoyed it as far as it goes. More soon. No, really!

Smuffly.